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An Army helicopter carrying a brigadier general and six other soldiers crashed and burned in the fog Monday after hitting a web of support wires on a TV transmission tower whose warning lights had been knocked out in a storm last week, officials said. Everyone aboard was killed.
The UH-60 Black Hawk, bound for the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, went down in a field about 30 miles northeast of Fort Hood. The fog was so thick when emergency crews arrived that they could not see more than halfway up the tower, authorities said.
The helicopter was headed to check out equipment being readied for use in Iraq, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, spokesman for the Fort Hood-based 4th Infantry Division. The names of the victims, all from Fort Hood, were not immediately released by the military.
But a military official at the home of Brig. Gen. Charles B. Allen on Monday night confirmed to The Associated Press that Allen was aboard the helicopter and had been killed. He said Allen's wife was grieving, and that the family was waiting for children to arrive. The official asked not to be identified.
Allen, an assistant division commander for the 4th Infantry Division, joined the Army as a lieutenant after receiving a bachelor's degree in history from Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., in 1977.
In his 27-year Army career, he was stationed at several U.S. and overseas military posts and also worked at the Pentagon. He earned a master's degree in business administration from Central Michigan University.
Brad and Becky Christmas of Wagon Mound, N.M., were notified Monday that their son, Capt. Todd Christmas, was among those killed, said family friend Patti Goetsch, who answered the phone at the family's ranch.
Christmas, 26, had just returned to Texas after spending Thanksgiving with his family, she said. She said the Texas A&M graduate, who joined the Army in 2001, served a year in Iraq, where he received the Bronze Star. She said he had been based at Fort Hood since the spring.
"He was doing what he loved," Goetsch said. "He was a career military man. He was proud to serve his country."
The crash happened about 7 a.m. Rock Eicke, who lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site, said he was getting ready for work when he was startled by a loud metallic rattling sound. He looked out his window and saw the helicopter hit the ground.
"All of the sudden I just saw a big ball of fire erupt from the ground and then boom, an explosion," Eicke said. "It was burning to the point that we couldn't have done anything."
The main part of the fuselage went down in a field about 200 to 300 yards from the tower, McLennan County constable Ken Brown said. He said he saw the tail section, parts of the rotor and other helicopter parts between the tower and the field.
Eicke and Brown, who accompanied emergency crews to the crash site, said charred and smoldering pieces of the helicopter were scattered for hundreds of yards. Two of the soldiers' bodies were seen inside the helicopter, others were lying in the field.
An investigation team from the U.S. Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., was sent to the scene to determine the cause of the crash.
Withington said the team's priority Monday night was "to secure the scene and recover the bodies." He said other Black Hawk helicopters from Fort Hood were being sent to the scene to pick up the bodies and return them to the post.
The helicopter hit several wires stabilizing an 1,800-foot television broadcasting tower owned by Waco-Temple-Killeen television station KXXV, said Jerry Pursley, the station's general manager. The tower itself was not hit, he said.
The tower's lights stopped working last week after strong storms hit the area, and the station notified the Federal Aviation Administration, Pursley said.
FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said the agency sent a notice on Nov. 24 to a computer database checked by pilots before they fly for information on potential hazards. Hundreds of such notices are issued every week around the country, and they typically stay posted for 15 days, he said.
The crash occurred at the highest point in McLennan County, with 30 different towers within a five-mile radius of where the helicopter went down, Sheriff's Deputy Shannon Mitchell said.
The Black Hawk, which the military began using in 1979, is the Army's main troop transport helicopter. It can carry 15 people and usually is flown by a crew of four.
In November 2003, 17 soldiers were killed when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in Iraq, apparently as the result of enemy fire. At the time it was the deadliest single event for U.S. troops in Iraq.
The crash is just the latest loss for Fort Hood and the 4th Infantry Division, one of the Army's most technically advanced fighting forces.
Soldiers from Fort Hood have played a key role in the Iraq war almost from the beginning. The 4th Infantry Division rolled into Iraq with about 20,000 troops in April 2003 and lost 79 soldiers during its year of deployment.
Roughly 23,000 soldiers from Fort Hood are currently deployed in Iraq, post spokesman Dan Hassett said.