SAN DIEGO — Details of the personal lives of the seven Marines killed in one of the Corps' deadliest aviation training accidents in years emerged Friday as families across the nation expressed their grief.
Those killed included a young man expecting his first child and another who had just gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend. One had served as a youth pastor before joining the military a decade ago, while another was the son of one.
The Marine Corps released 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.
The dead were listed as Maj. Thomas A. Budrejko, 37, of Montville, Conn.; Capt. Michael M. Quin, 28, of Purcellville, Va.; Capt. Benjamin N. Cerniglia, 31, of Montgomery, Ala.; Sgt. Justin A. Everett, 33, of Clovis, Calif.; Lance Cpl. Corey A. Little, 25, of Marietta, Ga.; Lance Cpl. Nickoulas H. Elliott, 21, of Spokane, Wash. and Capt. Nathan W. Anderson, 32, of Amarillo, Texas.
Anderson was based in Yuma and the others were from Camp Pendleton in Southern California, the West Coast's largest base.
"Every single one of these Marines impacted our squadron in their own special way, and the entire Marine Corps aviation community is feeling their tragic loss," said Lt. Col. Stephen Lightfoot, commanding officer of the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469. "I ask that you pray for the families and friends of the warriors we have lost."
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.
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.
Everett was aboard the Huey as a crew chief, his family said. He had served in Iraq and was about to deploy to 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."
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," his mother Wanda Little said. "He loved to read. He was a very avid reader."
Cerniglia was the son of senior Pastor Mark Cerniglia at The Lutheran Church of Our Savior in South Carolina, where a memorial service was planned Monday.
The church spoke for the grieving family.
"We grieve for the loss of these talented young lives and pray for all the families and communities that are in mourning also," said a statement on the church website.
Budrejko (pronounced bud-RAY'-koh) grew up in Montville, Conn., before going to the Naval Academy and a career as a Marine aviator. He had deployed multiple times since 2003.
"He was funny. He was successful. He was a Renaissance man, but most of all he was kind. He was such a kind person, and really wanted to make a difference – not just in the wider world but person-to-person," said his aunt, Gail Budrejko.
"I think the world was a better place because Tommy was in it." she said.
Quin had just gotten engaged last month to his longtime girlfriend and had received a visit from his fiancee and his two younger sisters last weekend, said his father, Brad Quin.
He said his son was captain of his high school soccer team, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2006 and was training as a Huey helicopter pilot.
"He was a perfect son because he was kind of self-motivated and deferential to others, respectful of people around him," Brad Quin said of his only son.
"When I think about this loss and what it means to me and my family, it wells up. We all live through our kids ... and I've lost my boy and I'm never ever going to recover from that," he said.
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.
Flaccus reported from Orange County, Calif. Associated Press writers Jeff Wilson and John Antczak in Los Angeles, Jeff Martin in Atlanta, Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia and Sylvia Wingfield in Boston contributed to this report.