RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, WEST GERMANY, AUG. 29 -- The crash of an Air Force C-5A transport plane in which 13 American servicemen died this morning sparked immediate calls from local residents and politicians for a halt in U.S. flights to the Persian Gulf from bases in Germany.
The massive Galaxy transport, which was loaded with supplies for U.S. forces in the gulf region, crashed on takeoff and broke up and burned in an open field five miles from the largest U.S. chemical weapons depot in Europe. The crash, at 12:50 a.m., caused the worst loss of life since the start of Operation Desert Shield. Four soldiers survived and were reported in stable condition at Landstuhl Army Medical Center near the crash site.
There was no immediate word on what might have caused the crash of the 20-year-old, four-engine jet. The Galaxy, part of the 60th Military Airlift Wing from Travis Air Force Base in California, had arrived at Ramstein, 90 miles southwest of Frankfurt, about 17 hours before takeoff.
As the Galaxy took off on a short hop to Frankfurt's Rhein-Main Air Base for the final leg to the gulf, the jet hit a stand of trees about 300 yards from the edge of the runway. The C-5A, which climbed only about 20 yards, ripped away a swath of the forest, flipped and tumbled into a mowed field adjacent to the runway, bursting into flame and breaking into two large pieces and many small ones. As of this evening, search crews had not found the plane's flight data recorder.
"I heard the engine warm up, and then the grinding takeoff sound," said Ramstein Mayor Julius Divivier, who lives near the runway. "Suddenly, the takeoff noise stopped, and then I looked out and saw the ball of fire."
The crash prompted a new outcry by West German citizens and politicians who want the many American bases in this region to limit or halt military flights. Huge transport planes such as the Galaxy -- which can carry 260,000 pounds of cargo and makes a startling buzzing noise on takeoff -- now fly in and out of Ramstein at every hour of the day and night, more than 100 times a day, according to local residents.
The downed C-5A, which had 180,000 pounds of fuel on board, had instructions to turn sharply after takeoff to avoid flying over the U.S. chemical weapons depot at Miesau, where about two-thirds of the American poison gas stocks are being held during their current removal from Germany.
Tonight, local leaders of the Social Democrats, West Germany's chief opposition party, demanded that the Air Force close Ramstein for the remainder of the U.S. chemical weapons withdrawal, which began early this summer and is expected to continue into the fall.
U.S. Air Force spokesman Wolfgang Hofmann said a crash into the poison gas stocks is "nearly impossible" because flight paths have been altered to avoid the depot.
The crash victims included Air Force reservists who had volunteered for the gulf operation, according to Air Force spokesmen. Nine of those killed were members of the crew of 12, based at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas. The other four were passengers being shuttled to Rhein-Main, a 20-minute flight from Ramstein. From Rhein-Main, the Galaxy and its cargo of medical supplies, dry rations and maintenance equipment were to continue to an unspecified site in the gulf area.
The C-5A, the Air Force's largest transport plane, is the backbone of Operation Desert Shield's supply effort. It is more than 75 yards long and can carry 360 troops, two M-1 tanks, 16 trucks, six Apache attack helicopters or 10 Pershing missiles.
Air traffic at Ramstein has tripled or quadrupled in the past three weeks, officers here said today. The flow of troops and supplies in and out of the base resumed this afternoon, about 11 hours after the crash.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Swope said the crash would not prompt any change in the use of Ramstein or other American bases. And despite the complaints of many of their neighbors and colleagues, some local officials said they support the continued use of U.S. bases in Germany for the Persian Gulf effort.