Families of servicemembers killed in Mississippi disaster want more answers
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: December 8, 2018
Ashley Kundrat and the man she would marry first grew close in high school in Frederick, Maryland. They dated back then, and by 2004, they were beginning a family that would eventually include a son, a daughter, evenings cooking together and lots of hiking.
All of that changed in a few fateful moments 20,000 feet over rural Mississippi. On July 10, 2017, Marine Staff Sgt. William Kundrat, 33, was among 15 Marines and a sailor who were killed when a KC-130T transport plane disintegrated in explosions and crashed in a soybean field in the town of Itta Bena.
In findings released Dec. 6, the service determined that the disaster began when a corroded propeller blade on the plane's left wing broke free, shooting into the fuselage. That started a chain reaction in which an entire propeller on the right wing snapped off and cut into the body of the plane. The plane fell to pieces in a series of explosions.
The destruction was preventable, investigators found: The corrosion on the first propeller blade to go should have been spotted six years earlier in a maintenance overhaul.
Kundrat's widow said the long wait for the results of the investigation was frustrating, especially as senior Marine officials granted six time extensions to allow investigators to search for more information. About 17 months later, she and other Gold Star families who lost loved ones were briefed on the findings shortly ahead of its public release.
"It was very, very frustrating to all of us, and I wish we would have been kept in the loop a little better regarding that," she said. "It's hard with your husband dying and your friends dying, and then knowing that people know what happened, and yet you're just being kept in the dark. It was a very frustrating point."
The search for information isn't over. Kundrat said she and other families involved are in touch with an attorney who will pursue additional information in an effort to make sure no similar disaster ever happens again.
The investigation cited failures in maintenance six years prior at the Air Force's Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex in Georgia, and in oversight. The corrosion on the first propeller blade should have been noticed during an overhaul of the aircraft in 2011, investigators found.
Among the questions that Kundrat still has is who specifically oversaw the flawed work at Warner Robins.
She also wants to know who decided that records of the aircraft's 2011 overhaul should be kept for only two years, as found during the investigation, and whether there have been any other mishaps created by faulty work at Warner Robins.
The attorney, Timothy Loranger, said the families want fuller explanations for how the disaster could have occurred.
"It's awful to think that those Marines and the Navy corpsman got on that airplane feeling confident that everybody had done their jobs," Loranger said. "A failure like this is just outrageous. It's outrageous to think that they could not assume that the military and the people working for the military were not performing to the highest standards that we would expect. It's really just devastating to all of them."
The service members killed include seven members of an elite Marine Raider team from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and nine members of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 452, a reserve unit in Newburgh, New York, which operated the plane.
The disaster was one in a string of fatal mishaps involving military aircraft over the last few years, drawing questions whether the aircraft are adequately maintained and whether all service members flying and caring for them are appropriately trained.
In a cruel, coincidental twist, the investigation's findings were released as U.S., Japanese and Australian authorities searched off the coast of Japan for survivors in another aviation mishap. In that one, an F/A-18 Hornet and a KC-130 Hercules collided during a refueling exercise before dawn Thursday.
One Marine was rescued afterward in the water, and another -- identified as Capt. Jahmar Resilard -- was found and declared deceased. Five other Marines were still missing Saturday, with hope of finding them alive waning.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Roger Hollenbach, said in a statement that the service is committed to providing any assistance possible to the grieving families.
"We owed it to the families to do the best, most thorough job we possibly could," he said. "An investigation of this scale is incredibly detailed and it is imperative that each step is taken properly -- unfortunately, this takes time."
Hollenback added that providing families with specific updates to the investigation while it was underway would have been incomplete. His unit, Marine Forces Reserve, "wanted to make sure that all entities involved finished their detailed review so that complete findings and information could be provided."
In addition to Kundrat, the dead from the Marine Raider team include Staff Sgt. Robert Cox, 28; Sgt. Chad Jenson, 25; Sgt. Talon Leach, 27; Sgt. Joseph Murray, 26; Sgt. Dietrich Schmieman, 26; and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Lohrey, 30.
Marines from the transport squadron killed include Maj. Caine Goyette, 41; Capt. Sean Elliot, 30; Gunnery Sgt. Mark Hopkins, 34; Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Johnson, 45; Staff Sgt. Joshua Snowden, 31; Sgt. Julian Kevianne, 31; Sgt. Owen Lennon, 26; Cpl. Daniel Baldassare, 20; and Cpl. Collin Schaaff, 22.