This post has been updated.
FORT HOOD, Texas—A flight of helicopters lumbered slowly over Belton Lake here Friday, just downstream from where nine soldiers died when their vehicle overturned in a flash flood.
The incident occurred around 11 a.m. Central Time Thursday at a low water crossing near the northeastern part of this sprawling Army base, one of the largest in the country. While three soldiers were rescued almost immediately, sonar boats and rescue crews worked through the night Thursday and all of Friday, combing flooded woods and engorged streams in search of the four that had been swept away in the rising waters.
At approximately 7 p.m. local time Friday, the Army announced that those four had been found. Bodies of five soldiers were recovered on Thursday. All the soldiers in the vehicle have now been accounted for.
The deaths of the soldiers in a seemingly avoidable accident is another blow to an Army post that has seen its share of tragedy in recent years. Last year, four soldiers were killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed on a routine training mission. In 2014, Spc. Ivan Lopez shot and killed four soldiers, including himself, and wounded 14 others in what was deemed a workplace violence incident. Lopez’s shooting spree came five years after a terrorist attack by Maj. Nidal Hasan who shot and killed 13 people in 2009, many of them soldiers, at one of the base’s medical facilities.
The base has “had some big things in our careers that we’ve responded to,” said Lt. Donnie Adams with the Bell County Sheriff’s Office.
Chris Haug, a Fort Hood spokesman, said Friday that base personnel were attempting to close a road because it had started to flood when the soldiers’ vehicle overturned. Haug said a dozen soldiers were learning how to operate a light medium tactical vehicle when it was caught in the rising waters and overturned.
“We were in the process — at the moment of the event — of closing the roads,” Haug said at a press conference outside of the base Friday morning.
Though the ford point was a designated low-water crossing, Haug said troops had regularly passed through it in similar weather conditions, but added that the water rose quickly, possibly catching the soldiers off guard.
“It was a tragic accident where we lost five of our soldiers,” Maj. Gen. John Uberti, Fort Hood’s deputy commanding general, said earlier Friday . “Due to the quick action of some other soldiers who were training, we were able to rescue three soldiers.”
Haug said that personnel in a vehicle behind the tactical vehicle had rescued the three soldiers. They were released from hospital Friday evening.
Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter said Friday that the U.S. military would learn from the rash of training accidents in the past week. On Thursday, the same day the Fort Hood soldiers were killed, a U.S. Navy Blue Angel F-18 crashed in Tennessee, killing the pilot.
“With respect to the fact that both of these were losses, safety issues, in training we are going to make sure that we learn lessons that we can from investigations that we conduct after these incidents and take actions in the future to prevent such accidents,” Carter told reporters during a visit to Singapore.
Rescue efforts at Fort Hood were likely hampered by the maze of underbrush and vegetation that has been pounded with storms over the past week, making navigation for those on the ground difficult. Despite the conditions, Haug said the base had used “all assets that we have” including ground search crews, air assets and dog teams to search for those who had gone missing.
“This is a remote area of the range, it’s difficult to see,” Haug said. Agencies from all over the state — and particularly throughout the five-city area surrounding the base — helped search efforts, according to officials.
Initially, the Army said that three soldiers had died, but later, after the bodies of two more were found, the number rose to five. With the recovery of the four more bodies late Friday, the toll has risen to nine and all the soldiers in the vehicle have been accounted for.
A medium tactical vehicle, such as the one that flipped Thursday, is often used as a troop transport, and is comprised of a front cab and bed that can hold equipment or additional soldiers. While medium tactical vehicles have substantial ground clearance they are not built specifically for high-water operations.
The deceased soldiers are from the 16th Field Artillery Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, the Army said. The 1st Cavalry Division is just one of several units that comprise the Army’s III Corps stationed at Fort Hood.
The names of the dead will not be released until 24 hours after their next of kin have been notified, officials said.
“The 1st Cavalry Division is grieving after a training accident at Fort Hood during flash flooding this morning. We are deeply saddened by the loss of several Troopers and continue search operations,” Maj. Gen. John C. Thomson III, 1st Cavalry Division’s commanding general, said in a statement. “Your thoughts and prayers are greatly appreciated during this difficult time as we care for the Families, loved ones, and fellow Soldiers of those impacted by this tragedy.”
Severe flooding has swept through Texas in recent days as bands of thunderstorms have pummeled dozens of counties across the state, forcing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to declare emergencies in many of them.
In a statement Abbott (R) extended his condolences to the families of those lost and said that “Texas stands ready to provide any assistance to Fort Hood as they deal with this tragedy.”
Prior to Thursday’s deaths officials at Fort Hood closed two main thoroughfares that stretched through the base, advising motorists to stay away from areas prone to flooding. Local weather reports indicated that Fort Hood has received nearly 3 inches of rain since Wednesday. on Friday the weather was mostly clear, though numerous streams remained swollen with rain water.
Fort Hood covers more than 300 square miles and is one of the largest military installations in the United States. Its expansive network of ranges and trails makes it a perfect place for armored vehicles and other units to train soldiers.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Washington.