Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Steep, rocky terrain hindered efforts Thursday to recover the bodies of seven marines killed when their tanker plane crashed into a mountain in Pakistan, defense officials said.
It was the worst U.S. casualty toll of the Afghanistan campaign, and included the first woman killed since U.S.-led Afghan bombing began in early October.
Residents in the region reported seeing helicopters flying over the site early Thursday.
In Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the Marines have established a base, spokesman 1st Lt. John Jarvis said the plane was on its final approach to the Shamsi airfield. It had been on the first of what normally would be four refueling stops per mission, so it likely had an almost full cargo of fuel.
A military team was heading from the Marine base at Kandahar to Shamsi to investigate, Jarvis said, echoing statements from the Pentagon that there had been no indication of hostile fire. He had no information on any weather factors, either.
"We're going to do everything we can to find out what caused the accident," Jarvis said. "Recovery is going to be tough. It's very tight terrain -- mountainside, not vehicle accessible. It's going to be tough going up to the point the accident occurred."
Marine staff in Kandahar observed a moment of silence.
Earlier Thursday a Pakistani military official at the base where the plane was headed told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity, that "U.S. officials are examining debris at the site of the incident and we are extending them full support."
Marines and Pakistanis approached the site within hours after the crash about three miles from the airport, but no bodies were recovered immediately, Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman with the U.S. Central Command, said late Wednesday evening in Florida.
"They made it to the crash site on foot," Mills said. "But they were unable to remain there. It is a very steep grade and they were unable to get footing. The site is secure."
President Bush said the crash was a reminder of "how serious the times are today."
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the soldiers," Bush said at a fund-raiser for the re-election of his brother Jeb as governor of Florida. "But I want to remind them that the cause that we are now engaged in is just and noble. The cause is freedom and this nation will not rest until we've achieved our objective."
The crash occurred late Wednesday night local time, and a search-and-rescue mission continued into the next morning. The plane crashed as it approached a military airfield called Shamsi in southwestern Pakistan. That air base is about 180 miles southwest of Quetta, Pakistan, according to U.S. Central Command.
Witnesses reported seeing flames shooting from the plane before it slammed into the mountainside.
The Pentagon identified the seven Marines who were killed as: pilot Capt. Matthew W. Bancroft, 29, of Shasta, Calif.; co-pilot Capt. Daniel G. McCollum, 29, of Richland, S.C.; Gunnery Sgt. Stephen L. Bryson, 36, of Montgomery, Ala.; Staff Sgt. Scott N. Germosen, 37, of New York City; Sgt. Nathan P. Hays, 21, of Lincoln, Wash., Lance Cpl. Bryan P. Bertrand, 23, of Coos Bay, Ore.; and Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, 25, of Du Page, Ill. All were based at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, Calif.
Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in Pakistan and the surrounding region, said the four-engine KC-130 Hercules took off from Jacobabad, Pakistan, and was making multiple stops.
In a brief exchange with reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he did not know the circumstances of the crash or whether the KC-130 was on a refueling mission.
"I'm going to wait for the investigation to be completed," he said. "We've got some folks heading up there now.
"It is a tough, dangerous business over there," he added. "They're doing difficult things and they're doing them darned well, and it just breaks your heart."
A journalist, Saeed Malangzai, who lives about 40 miles from the crash site, told The Associated Press the plane went down in mountains in southern Balochistan province.
"Residents saw flames from the burning plane before it crashed into the Lundi mountains," Malangzai said.
Pakistani troops encircled the area, he said.
The KC-130 is a $37 million plane routinely used by the Marine Corps for in-flight refueling of helicopters. It is also used for troop and cargo delivery, evacuation missions and special operations support. It normally carries a six-man crew of two pilots, a navigator, flight engineer, mechanic and loadmaster.
The only other fatal crash of a U.S. military aircraft during the war in Afghanistan, which began Oct. 7, was an Army Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Pakistan on Oct. 19, killing two Army Rangers.
------Associated Press Writer Matt Kelley contributed to this story.