While reporting a longer, planned profile for Father's Day, I got the call about a training accident at West Point. I rushed to the hastily arranged media holding area and reported from the scene, writing the sad news story with my colleague Steve Lieberman.
HIGHLANDS, N.Y. — One West Point cadet was killed and 19 other cadets and two soldiers were injured when a transport vehicle overturned early Thursday morning while heading to a summer training exercise.
The 5-ton vehicle overturned at 6:45 a.m. on a dirt road in hills between West Point's Camp Buckner and Camp Natural Bridge summer training site, about six miles southwest of the United States Military Academy.
The injured were taken to Keller Army Community Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after the crash in woods near the training site off Route 293. The injuries ranged from cuts and bruises to broken bones, said Col. Brett Venable, the hospital's commander.
'A tragic day'
Early Thursday afternoon, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, West Point's 60th superintendent, flanked by his staff, strode somberly to a bank of news microphones set up alongside Route 293, about two miles from the crash site.
"Today was a tragic day for the West Point community and our United States Army," the three-star general said grimly. "Early this morning, a troop vehicle carrying 20 cadets operated by two soldiers was traveling to a land-navigation site when it was involved in a rollover accident."
Williams said the dead cadet's identity would be released within 24 hours, after the next of kin is notified. He declined to discuss the cadet's fatal injuries or where the cadet was seated in the Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, or LMTV.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the deceased and injured," the superintendent said.
Williams said the incident is under investigation and he would not comment on the carrying capacity of the LMTV nor on any particulars of the incident, other than to say that it happened in mountainous "rough" terrain.
The accident occurred as the world marked the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, when 150,000 trained troops landed on the beaches of France.
Dead at the scene
Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt, the academy's public-information officer, later said the cadet was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, which occurred when soldiers from Fort Benning, Georgia, were transporting the 20 cadets to land-navigation training.
Ophardt described the LMTV as a five-ton vehicle with a truck cab and a bed with two benches facing each other on which the cadets sat. The vehicle had a soft canopy cover, he said.
He said the cadets, all rising seniors at West Point, are required to undergo the summer-camp training over the first four or five weeks of the summer. He also said it was unclear if all 20 of the cadets were in the vehicle at the time of the crash.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, other training continued. Machine-gun fire and artillery could be heard in the hills west of West Point.
The group involved in the accident was being transported on a dirt road over mountainous Hudson Valley terrain from their barracks at Camp Buckner to Camp Natural Bridge to an area called "the lanes," where they were to practice land-navigation skills, assessing topography and using a compass.
While classes at West Point ended for the school year last month, the academy runs summer military training exercises for cadets in the heavily wooded hills west of the campus.
Said Williams: "It's very rough terrain. You can see the hills we have here. We want to make sure that our soldiers and our cadets train in realistic training."
'En route to an exercise'
"They were en route to an exercise," Ophardt said.
Images from news helicopters showed the undercarriage of the vehicle, suggesting it was fully overturned.
Ophardt said the cadets in the vehicle will stand down for 24 hours and have access to grief counselors and the chaplain.
The truck overturned along a dirt road in a hilly mountainous terrain used to "make sure our soldiers and cadets are trained in a realistic environment," Williams said.
The investigation will focus on how the accident occurred and the truck will be inspected.
Asked by a reporter if the truck was overloaded and only had a capacity of 12, Williams declined to discuss details.
Ophardt later said a safety team from Fort Rucker, Alabama, was being dispatched to West Point "to do an assessment safety investigation and answer a lot of the question about speed, curve, number of people in the vehicle."
President Trump: 'We mourn the loss of life'
President Donald Trump tweeted about the accident and said, "We mourn the loss of life and pray for the injured."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement expressing his condolences for the cadet who died and those injured. He directed the state Office of Emergency Management to provide any resources necessary to assist West Point's efforts.
"My heart breaks for all those involved in the tragic training accident at West Point this morning," Cuomo said. "These courageous cadets and soldiers represent the best of New York State and our country, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their bravery in choosing to serve our country and protect our freedoms."
Cuomo said the tragic incident is made "all the more heart wrenching as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day today, a day where we remember those who gave their lives for our country."
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, whose 18th Congressional District includes West Point, issued a statement that he and his husband, Randy Florke, "grieve with the West Point community and Army families impacted by this morning’s tragic accident. The loss of a young cadet is heartbreaking, and our prayers are with all who were injured."
The incident marked the second cadet death at West Point this year. Cadet Peter Zhu died in February after a skiing accident. His parents made headlines afterward for their successful legal effort to retrieve his frozen sperm.