ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The investigation is just beginning into what caused a Boeing C-17 to crash and burn on Elmendorf Air Force Base Wednesday evening, killing all four crew members and damaging nearby Alaska Railroad tracks that carry passenger and freight trains.
Despite the deaths, the hugely popular Arctic Thunder air show and open house will go on this weekend, officials announced Thursday afternoon.
Military authorities haven't publicly identified the crew members -- three from the Alaska Air National Guard, one active-duty Air Force -- who were practicing for the air show when the plane went down in a wooded area a couple of miles from the end of a runway. That should happen Friday, once the families have had a few hours to grieve in private, said a military spokesman.
This appears to be the first fatal crash involving a C-17, which Boeing bills as the most advanced air cargo plane in the world. Brig. Gen.
Chuck Foster, commander of the Guard's 176th Wing, said he knew of no other. Elmendorf officials were trying to confirm that.
The four-engine jet crashed in what witnesses described as a huge ball of flame. One said it looked like a nuclear explosion.
Emergency crews worked all night Wednesday to secure the crash site and preserve evidence for the Air Force investigation, Col. Jack McMullen, 3rd Wing commander, told reporters early Thursday at a briefing outside Elmendorf's Boniface Parkway gate.
"We've got an interim safety team that's standing up, that's going to be out there to secure data, to secure information, to secure the site," McMullen said. "We've got another safety team that's going to come in ... which will start an official safety investigation to try to determine the cause of the accident." At the briefing, McMullen and Foster provided little information about the flight itself. The Air Force says its records show that the crash happened about 6:14 p.m. "About a minute after takeoff is when I got the call that we had a mishap," McMullen said. "I did not see it. I do not know. But it happened very quickly after takeoff, is what I do know." More information about the crash will come after the safety team reconstructs what happened, he said.
The plane had flown earlier Wednesday with a different crew, McMullen said.
The Air Force hasn't said if the C-17's flight data recorder has been recovered or if it has any audio of the flight crew's last moments.
Boeing said it would help with the investigation if needed.
The Alaska Railroad has suspended freight traffic and is bussing passengers around the damaged tracks, said Stephanie Wheeler, railroad spokeswoman.
The railroad goes through the base on the way north to Wasilla and beyond.
Railroad officials don't yet know whether the crashing plane struck the tracks directly, she said. "We know there's debris on both sides of the track and on the track. It could have," Wheeler said. "We haven't been able to get out there and really make that determination." The last train came through about 2:30 p.m. hauling gravel. The next one due was a passenger train from Denali National Park, which would have moved through about 7:40 p.m., she said.
Passenger and freight trains come through every day, and frequent trains haul gravel and coal through the base, she said. The passenger trains can carry hundreds of people.
About a 200-foot stretch of the main line and a parallel siding, used for passing, were damaged, Wheeler said. Passengers are being bussed between Birchwood and the historic railroad depot at Ship Creek. The railroad needs a few hours to repair the main tracks and is coordinating with the military to get access to the area, Wheeler said.
Until then, the railroad can't say when service will resume.
C-17 crews have embarked on a range of missions, some rendering aid, some related to war, since the aircraft arrived at Elmendorf in June 2007. The C-17s are operated jointly by Air Force and Guard squadrons, a more common practice as the military tries to improve efficiency.
After Wednesday's loss, Elmendorf has seven C-17s left.
Crews from Anchorage flew supplies to Haiti after the earthquake in January. They delivered a Navy skimmer boat and boom to the Gulf of Mexico after April's disastrous oil spill. They delivered helicopters and rescuers to the Gulf during the 2008 hurricane season.
And "with mixed active-duty and Air Guard crews, they are constantly flying to both Iraq and Afghanistan, ferrying personnel, supplies and equipment," 1st Lt. John Callahan of the Air Guard said in an e-mail message Thursday.
Around the country, the C-17 is commonly featured in air shows, highlighting the aircraft's ability to take off and land in short distances.
The loss of the four airmen will be honored by holding the air show as planned, McMullen said in a written statement Thursday.
"Obviously this is a huge tragedy but at some point we are going to need to get up, and we're going to need to press on and move forward," the commander told reporters earlier in the day.
The military is also going ahead with a ceremony today that is another step in the merger of Elmendorf and adjacent Fort Richardson into what is being called Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. A new wing is being activated at the ceremony. Military officials on Thursday were offering help from counselors and chaplains to families and squadrons, which also take care of their own.
"The squadrons themselves kind of surround each other and they care for one another," Foster said.
"Absolutely. The squadrons, the wing, the base is a huge family. So we're going to lean on each other to work ourselves through that," McMullen said.
Worldwide, 218 C-17s are in service, including 199 used by the U.S. Air Force and National Guard, according to Boeing.
Military officials, political leaders, and Boeing have all expressed sorrow about the four deaths. Gov. Sean Parnell ordered flags lowered to half staff.