The families of three Army soldiers who died in a plane crash in Afghanistan say a North Carolina company sent the men to their deaths in an underequipped and poorly manned aircraft.
They filed a civil suit Monday against Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, a Moyock-based company that contracts with the military to provide staff and equipment in war zones, and several aviation companies that Blackwater owns. At least one of the companies was operating the flight that crashed into a mountainside in November, the lawsuit claims.
Lt. Col. Michael McMahon, Chief Warrant Officer Travis Grogan and Spc. Harley Miller, all stationed in Hawaii, died in the crash Nov. 27, 2004. Three crew members were also killed. The plane was ferrying the men from an airfield in Bagram, Afghanistan, to Farah, Afghanistan, not flying a combat mission.
More than two days after the plan left Bagram, rescuers found it in pieces on a snowy peak.
According to the suit, the plane lacked even the most basic safety equipment. It had no global positioning system or radar. Its crew did not wear oxygen masks. And its two pilots, who had been in Afghanistan only two weeks and had never flown the route before, failed to take the basic step of filing a flight plan, leading to a delay in finding the wreckage.
That delay could have been fatal for Miller, who apparently survived the crash. When his body was found, it was clear he had gotten out of the wreckage, smoked a cigarette, pulled out a sleeping bag and tried to find shelter, said Robert Spohrer, a Florida lawyer who is representing the families.
"These contractors are certainly in a position to make a lot of money from the government," said Jeanette McMahon, whose husband, Michael, died in the crash. "But they have to take their jobs as seriously as the military."
Blackwater officials said Monday they had nothing to do with the doomed flight.
The company's lawyer, Jonathan Stern of Washington, said in a statement that the government contracted with Presidential Airways of Florida, not Blackwater, to transport troops and cargo in and around Afghanistan.
But the company's Web site says Presidential Airways is part of Blackwater's aviation services.
"The accident was a tragedy, and Presidential was and is saddened by the loss of life," Stern wrote in the statement.
This week's suit marks the second time that Blackwater has been accused of sloppy practices in a combat zone.
The company also faces a lawsuit from the families of four employees who were killed and mutilated in Fallujah, Iraq, last year. They say Blackwater failed to provide proper weapons and armored vehicles, then sent the employees out shorthanded without even a map to guide them through one of the country's most dangerous regions.
Blackwater is among several private companies the government has contracted to provide an unprecedented level of staff and supplies in war zones. Experts say the increasing use of private forces to carry out military duties leads to new questions about who is accountable when accidents occur.
In this case, McMahon, a lieutenant colonel and Army pilot herself, said she studied the military investigation of the crash.
McMahon said the Army has an extensive orientation program for pilots arriving in war zones. But the pilots on this flight appeared to get virtually no orientation, she said, other than a single flight with more experienced pilots.
McMahon also said the company failed to pair a less experienced pilot with a more experienced one, instead sending two who had never flown over the peaks of Afghanistan, which are lashed by frequent storms.
As part of the suit, the plaintiffs submitted an October 2004 company newsletter from Blackwater, which says the company won a $34.8 million government contract to provide "airlift" in Afghanistan and the surrounding area. They say the plane was operating under that contract, although Blackwater officials would not confirm it.
"Our question is, of the $34,800,000 that Blackwater received for this contract, how much of it went into training?" said Spohrer, the plaintiffs' lawyer. "How much of it went into equipment?.. And how much of it went elsewhere?"