CHICO, TEX., FEB. 25 -- An Army Chinook CH47 helicopter caught fire and crashed in a pasture today, killing nine soldiers and seriously burning nine, authorities said.

Two soldiers fell 35 feet after leaping from the burning twin-rotor helicopter as it hurtled toward the ground about 50 miles from Fort Worth, state Department of Public Safety Sgt. Robert Rankin said. One of the soldiers died.

The other soldier said that fire broke out at the back of the helicopter and that those aboard tried to move to the front to get away from the flames, Rankin said.

"We do have some witnesses who said they saw parts falling off back toward Chico {several miles away}, and some of the witnesses said it was on fire before impact," he said.

Seven soldiers died at the scene of the crash, and two others died in hospitals, military spokesmen said.

The nine injured were listed in serious and critical condition.

Many of the soldiers suffered third-degree burns, some over their entire bodies; others were wrapped in body bags after firefighters extinguished the grass fire, authorities said.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known.

A team of investigators from Fort Rucker, Ala., was en route tonight, said Col. Herbert Blanks.

In 1985, the Army grounded its fleet of 63 of the giant CH47Ds after an accident in Honduras injured eight soldiers. The order was lifted after a month and a half.

Wendell Berry, a farmer, said he saw the helicopter skid about 75 yards before breaking apart in flames. He said that he tried to fight the flames with a fire extinguisher and helped douse burning bodies scattered about the wreckage.

"We put a lot of fire {on people} out," Berry said. "We couldn't do very much. . . ."

The helicopter was returning to Fort Sill, Okla., where it was stationed, from Fort Hood in central Texas with soldiers from both forts aboard, said Capt. Tim Vane of Fort Hood. The Chinook can carry more than 33 combat-equipped soldiers.

Winford McDaniel, supervisor of a rock-crushing business two miles from the crash site, said a large part fell from the copter and landed near the plant.

"It looks like an exhaust pipe," he said. "It's a round piece about three feet long and three feet across."