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CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8 | cbs8.com

Names of 7 Marines killed in Yuma crash released

Family identifies one of the seven Marines killed when two Marine Corps helicopters collided over a remote section of the California desert during a nighttime exercise.

SAN DIEGO (AP/CBS) — Details of the personal lives of the seven Marines killed in one of the Corps' deadliest aviation training accidents in years emerged Friday as families across the nation expressed their grief.

Those killed included a young man expecting his first child and another who had just gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend. One had served as a youth pastor before joining the military a decade ago, while another was the son of one.

The Marine Corps released the names of all seven of the dead Marines late Friday, as crews worked to clean up the accident site on a sprawling desert range near Yuma, Ariz.

The dead were listed as Maj. Thomas A. Budrejko, 37, of Montville, Conn.; Capt. Michael M. Quin, 28, of Purcellville, Va.; Capt. Benjamin N. Cerniglia, 31, of Montgomery, Ala.; Sgt. Justin A. Everett, 33, of Clovis, Calif.; Lance Cpl. Corey A. Little, 25, of Marietta, Ga.; Lance Cpl. Nickoulas H. Elliott, 21, of Spokane, Wash. and Capt. Nathan W. Anderson, 32, of Amarillo, Texas.

Anderson was based in Yuma and was acting as an instructor to the other Marine pilots, according to MCAS Yuma officials.  The other Marines were from Camp Pendleton in Southern California, the West Coast's largest base.

"Every single one of these Marines impacted our squadron in their own special way, and the entire Marine Corps aviation community is feeling their tragic loss," said Lt. Col. Stephen Lightfoot, commanding officer of the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469. "I ask that you pray for the families and friends of the warriors we have lost."

Officials said it could take weeks to determine what caused two helicopters, an AH-1W Cobra and a UH-1 Huey, to crash in midair during a routine exercise Wednesday night, killing all aboard the aircraft. Skies were clear and the weather was mild.

The accident occurred near the Chocolate Mountains along the California-Arizona border — a sprawling desert range favored by the U.S. military because its craggy mountains and hot, dusty conditions are similar to Afghanistan's harsh environment.

All the Marines were part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. With 17,500 Marines and sailors, including personnel stationed at Camp Pendleton and Yuma, the unit conducts hundreds of aviation training exercises a year so troops can get as much experience as possible before they go to war.

Two of the Marines who died were aboard the AH-1W Cobra and the rest were in the UH-1 Huey utility helicopter. They were flying in a remote section of the 1.2-million-acre Yuma Training Range Complex as part of a two-week standard training called "Scorpion Fire" that involved a squadron of about 450 troops from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Everett was aboard the Huey as a crew chief, his family said. He had served in Iraq and was about to deploy to Afghanistan.

Everett, who leaves behind a wife, a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, left a job as a youth pastor at a Fresno church to join the Marines after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said his mother, Patsy Everett.

He was a wrestler in high school, played the saxophone as a kid and participated in marching band in junior high school, she said. He also traveled to Mexico for several weeks to serve as a missionary for his church, she said.

"I saw him Sunday night, we came by to visit and he had walked me to my car and hugged me and kissed and told me, 'Mama bear, I love you' and I told him, 'Baby bear, I love you too,'" she said as she gathered with family to begin making funeral arrangements. "He was a good boy, never been any problem to us."

Little was also a Huey helicopter crew chief and he was married and expecting his first child in September.

He played baseball while growing up in Fayetteville, just south of Atlanta.

"He loved the outdoors," his mother Wanda Little said. "He loved to read. He was a very avid reader."

Cerniglia was the son of senior Pastor Mark Cerniglia at The Lutheran Church of Our Savior in South Carolina, where a memorial service was planned Monday.

The church spoke for the grieving family.

"We grieve for the loss of these talented young lives and pray for all the families and communities that are in mourning also," said a statement on the church website.

Budrejko (pronounced bud-RAY'-koh) grew up in Montville, Conn., before going to the Naval Academy and a career as a Marine aviator. He had deployed multiple times since 2003. News 8 has learned that he will be posthumously promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel; a promotion in the pipeline, but not yet awarded, at the time of his death.

"He was funny. He was successful. He was a Renaissance man, but most of all he was kind. He was such a kind person, and really wanted to make a difference — not just in the wider world but person-to-person," said his aunt, Gail Budrejko.

"I think the world was a better place because Tommy was in it." she said.

Quin had just gotten engaged last month to his longtime girlfriend and had received a visit from his fiancée and his two younger sisters last weekend, said his father, Brad Quin.

He said his son was captain of his high school soccer team, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2006 and was training as a Huey helicopter pilot.

"He was a perfect son because he was kind of self-motivated and deferential to others, respectful of people around him," Brad Quin said of his only son.

"When I think about this loss and what it means to me and my family, it wells up. We all live through our kids ... and I've lost my boy and I'm never ever going to recover from that," he said.

It was the fifth aviation accident since March involving the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. Throughout the Navy and Marine Corps, there have only been two other aviation training accidents in the past five years involving seven or more deaths, according to the military's Naval Safety Center.

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Flaccus reported from Orange County, Calif. Associated Press writers Jeff Wilson and John Antczak in Los Angeles, Jeff Martin in Atlanta, Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia and Sylvia Wingfield in Boston contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

THIS IS A STORY UPDATE. For an earlier version, read below.

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A helicopter collision that killed seven Marines — one of the Corps' deadliest aviation training accidents in years — left the military community shaken and was a solemn reminder that preparing for war poses some of the same risks as the real thing.

"It's an unfortunate consequence of the high tempo of operations," said retired Marine Col. J.F. Joseph, an aviation safety consultant. "They're out there working on the edge trying to exploit the maximum capabilities of the aircraft and their tactics. Just by the virtue of that, in becoming combat ready, these unfortunately are not uncommon occurrences."

The Marine Corps and Navy, nonetheless, stand out in their efforts to mitigate that risk and make training as safe as possible, he said.

Officials said it could take weeks to determine what caused two helicopters, an AH-1W Cobra and a UH-1 Huey, to crash in midair during a routine exercise Wednesday night, killing all aboard the aircraft. Skies were clear and the weather was mild.

The accident occurred near the Chocolate Mountains along the California-Arizona border — a sprawling desert range favored by the U.S. military because its craggy mountains and hot, dusty conditions are similar to Afghanistan's harsh environment.

It was the fifth aviation accident since March involving the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. Throughout the Navy and Marine Corps, there have only been two other aviation training accidents in the past five years involving seven or more deaths, according to the military's Naval Safety Center.

Chaplains and counselors were called in to talk to troops. Six of the Marines killed were from Pendleton — the West Coast's largest base — and one was from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona.

With 17,500 Marines and sailors, including personnel stationed at Camp Pendleton and Yuma, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing conducts hundreds of aviation training exercises a year so troops can get as much experience as possible before they go to war.

The Marine Corps was expected to release the names of the dead late Friday.

However, a Fresno woman said her son was among the dead.

Patsy Everett said her 33-year-old son, Sgt. Justin Avery Everett, was a 10-year Marine Corps veteran who had already served in Iraq and was scheduled to go to Afghanistan this summer.

Everett, a Huey crew chief, is survived by his wife, a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son who lives in the Winchester area of Riverside County, the family said.

As a boy, he wrestled for his school, played the saxophone and participated in his junior high school's marching band. After high school, he worked as a youth pastor for several years and traveled briefly as a missionary in Mexico.

"I saw him Sunday night, we came by to visit and he had walked me to my car and hugged me and kissed and told me, 'Mama bear, I love you' and I told him, 'Baby bear, I love you too,'" Patsy Everett said as she gathered with family to begin making funeral arrangements.

"He was a good boy, never been any problem to us."

Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement on behalf of himself and his wife: "Anne and I offer our condolences to the families and friends of the Marines who died last night. We honor their bravery and sacrifice."

A Marine from Georgia was also among the dead.

Wanda Little said her son, 25-year-old Lance Cpl. Corey Little of Fayetteville, Ga., was a Huey helicopter crew chief who died in the crash.

Two of the Marines who died were aboard the AH-1W Cobra and the rest were in the UH-1 Huey utility helicopter. They were flying in a remote section of the 1.2-million-acre Yuma Training Range Complex as part of a two-week standard training called "Scorpion Fire" that involved a squadron of about 450 troops from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Ground troops were in the area, but they were not affected, said Gunnery Sgt. Dustin Dunk, a spokesman at the Yuma base, which is a 90-minute drive from the accident site.

Part of the exercise involved having helicopters low on fuel descend to ground troops that have set up a refueling outpost, Dunk said.

He did not know if that's what the pilots were doing at the time of the crash.

"Our training is always evolving, safety is paramount, and being prepared is paramount," he said. "It was a very standard exercise for what we do. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family members. ... Our investigation will look to see what went wrong and how to correct it."

In other crashes in the past year, a twin-engine, two-seat AH-1W Cobra helicopter went down in September during training in a remote area of Camp Pendleton, killing two Marine pilots and igniting a brush fire that burned about 120 acres at the base north of San Diego.

In July, a decorated Marine from western New York was killed during a training exercise when his UH-1Y helicopter went down in a remote section of Camp Pendleton.

In one of the worst accidents in the past five years, an AH1-W flying in formation with three other Marine helicopters on a nighttime training mission from Camp Pendleton to San Clemente Island collided with a Coast Guard C-130 airplane in October 2009, killing two aboard the Marine helicopters and seven aboard the C-130.

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Associated Press writers Jeff Wilson and John Antczak in Los Angeles and Gillian Flaccus in Orange County contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

THIS IS AN UPDATE TO THE PREVIOUS STORY BELOW.

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two Marine Corps helicopters collided over a remote section of the California desert during a nighttime exercise, killing seven Marines in one of the Corps' deadliest training accidents in years.

There were no survivors in the latest in a series of crashes involving troops from Camp Pendleton, officials said Thursday.

Two Marines were aboard an AH-1W Cobra and the rest were in a UH-1 Huey utility helicopter when the crash occurred Wednesday night near the Chocolate Mountains along the California-Arizona border, said Lt. Maureen Dooley with Miramar Air Base in San Diego.

Six of the victims were from Camp Pendleton — the largest base on the West Coast — and one was from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona. Their identities will not be released until their families have all been notified.

However, through social media friends of Sergeant Justin Everett began to pay their respects. The Fresno Bee spoke with Everett's father who confirms he was a Crew Chief on the Huey.  In addition, his son was enroute for his third tour of combat, this time to Afghanistan.

Officials were still scrambling after sunrise to gather evidence at the crash site in a remote section of the Yuma Training Range Complex.

The sprawling 1.2 million-acre range in Arizona and southeastern California is favored by the U.S. military and its allies for training because the hot, dusty conditions and craggy mountains replicate Afghanistan's harsh environment and the clear weather allows for constant flying.

It was the fifth time since March that Marine Corps aircraft have crashed during a training exercise in California. In the past five years, there have only been two other aviation training accidents in the Navy and Marine Corp involving seven or more deaths, according to the Navy.

Retired Marine Col. J.F. Joseph, an aviation safety consultant, said Marine aviators are always at risk as they train to become combat ready.

"It's an unfortunate consequence of the high tempo of operations," he said. "They're out there working on the edge trying to exploit the maximum capabilities of the aircraft and their tactics. Just by the virtue of that, in becoming combat ready, these unfortunately are not uncommon occurrences."

The Marine Corps and Navy, nonetheless, stand out in their efforts to mitigate that risk and make training as safe as possible, he said.

The weather was mild on Wednesday when the helicopters were flying as part of a two-week standard training called "Scorpion Fire" that involved a squadron of about 450 troops from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The wing has about 17,500 Marines and sailors, including six helicopter squadrons that fly both Cobras and Hueys. It's headquartered at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and also has personnel stationed at Camp Pendleton and Yuma.

The helicopters collided at 8:45 p.m. near dunes at the edge of the Yuma range. Ground troops were in the area, but they were not affected, said Gunnery Sgt. Dustin Dunk, a spokesman at Marine Corp Air Station Yuma. The station is about an hour and a half drive from the accident site.

Part of the exercise involved having helicopters low on fuel descend to ground troops that have set up a refueling outpost, Dunk said.

He did not know if that's what the pilots were doing at the time of the crash, which occurred about an hour before the range was to shut down for the evening.

"Our training is always evolving, safety is paramount, and being prepared is paramount," he said. "It was a very standard exercise for what we do. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family members ... Our investigation will look to see what went wrong and how to correct it."

The AH-1W carries a crew of two — a pilot and gunner — and is considered the Marine Corps' main attack helicopter. The UH-1Y, which is replacing the aging version of the Huey utility helicopter first used during the Vietnam War, carries a crew of one or two pilots, a crew chief and other crew members, depending on the mission.

Hueys often are used to pick up and drop off ground crews, while Cobras hover by ready to fire if the Huey comes under attack.

In other crashes in the past year, a twin-engine, two-seat AH-1W Cobra helicopter went down in September during training in a remote area of Camp Pendleton, killing two Marine pilots and igniting a brush fire that burned about 120 acres at the base north of San Diego.

In August, two Marines were ejected from their F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet as it plunged toward the Pacific Ocean. The two Marines spent four hours in the dark, chilly ocean before they were rescued. Both suffered broken bones but survived.

In July, a decorated Marine from western New York was killed during a training exercise when his UH-1Y helicopter went down in a remote section of Camp Pendleton.

Another Hornet sustained at least $1 million damage when its engine caught fire on March 30 aboard the USS John C. Stennis during a training exercise about 100 miles off the San Diego coast. Eight sailors, a Marine and two civilians were injured.

A decade ago, in February 2002, a helicopter crash in the Chocolate Mountains California killed two Camp Pendleton Marines and injured two others. The UH-1N Huey was on a routine training mission in the Naval gunnery range.

___

Associated Press writer Jeff Wilson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

THIS IS A STORY UPDATE. For an earlier story, read below.

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Six Camp Pendleton-based Marines and a seventh stationed in Arizona were killed when two helicopters collided during a nighttime training exercise on the outskirts of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, military officials announced Thursday.

The AH-1W "Cobra" and UH-1 "Huey" aircraft went down about 8 p.m. Wednesday over a remote part of Yuma Training Range Complex, according to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's public affairs office.

No one survived the midair crash, which happened in a section of the installation that extends into the far southeastern reaches of California, near the Chocolate Mountains. The casualties belonged to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, which is based at MCAS Miramar.

The military will conduct an "intensive investigation" into the cause of the disastrous crash over the next few months, said Lt. Maureen Dooley, a spokeswoman for the 3rd MAW. The air wing trains in Yuma on a weekly basis, according to Dooley.

The identities of the deceased Marines were not released, pending family notification. Public release of the names was expected to be on hold until at least Friday afternoon, Dooley said.

The sole Yuma-based casualty was one of the two pilots of the helicopters, according to a Yuma-based Marine gunnery sergeant interviewed by KNX.

Among the public figures offering condolences over the deadly military aviation accident was Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of these brave Marines who died in this tragic accident," Boxer said in a statement. "We honor their service and all they have done for our country."

Over the last several years, accidents involving the same types of helicopters have claimed the lives of more than a dozen military personnel, most of them based in the San Diego area.

On Oct. 26, 2009, four Camp Pendleton-based Marines were killed when their Cobra and Huey helicopters collided over southern Afghanistan. Cpl.

Gregory M.W. Fleury, 23, and Capt. Eric A. Jones, 29, were in the Huey that collided with the Cobra carrying David S. Mitchell, 30, and Kyle R. Van De Giesen, 29.

Four days later, a Camp Pendleton-based Cobra collided in flight with a Sacramento-based U.S. Coast Guard C-130 search plane near San Clemente Island, killing two Marines aboard the Cobra and seven Coast Guard members. Three separate military probes concluded there was no single factor that caused the crash.

More recently, a Marine pilot and his co-pilot were killed when their Cobra helicopter went down at Camp Pendleton on Sept. 19 during a training exercise, killing Capt. Jeffrey Bland, 37, and 1st Lt. Thomas Heitmann, 27. The crash sparked a brush fire that blackened about 120 acres near Fallbrook.

In July, 25-year-old Marine Sgt. Trevor Cook was killed and five other Marines were injured when a Huey helicopter went down in a hilly area in the northwestern reaches of Camp Pendleton, sparking a small brush fire that was quickly extinguished.