SAN DIEGO — Seven Marines killed in one of the Corps' deadliest aviation training accidents in years included a young man expecting his first child and a father of two who had served as a youth pastor before joining the military a decade ago.
The Marine Corps was expected to release 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., said Marine Capt. Staci Reidinger, a spokeswoman at the Yuma base.
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.
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.
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.
Among the dead was 33-year-old Sgt. Justin Avery Everett, who was aboard the Huey as a crew chief, his family said. He had served two tours in Iraq and was about to deploy for a tour in 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."
Also among the dead was 25-year-old Lance Cpl. Corey Little, of Fayetteville, Ga., his mother Wanda Little said.
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," she said. "He loved to read. He was a very avid reader."
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.
Associated Press writers Jeff Wilson and John Antczak in Los Angeles, and Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.