FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The death toll rose to 20 and is expected to go higher in the aftermath of a midair collision between two planes at Pope Air Force Base on Wednesday that sent a fighter jet skidding into hundreds of paratroopers preparing for a training flight.
A day after the accident that left more than 90 soldiers injured -- many with critical burns over most of their bodies -- military officials had no explanation for why an F-16D fighter and a C-130 Hercules transport were apparently trying to land at the same time on the same runway.
The planes collided less than 300 feet above the ground, sending the fighter caroming into the paratroopers and the C-141 transport they were preparing to board.
The main focus of activity yesterday was on providing treatment for the critically burned soldiers, 20 of whom were airlifted to the Army's burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. A few were injured too seriously to be moved, said officials at Womack Medical Center here.
Maj. Bill Chapman, chief of general surgery at Womack, said the soldiers sustained extraordinarily serious injuries from both the fireball created by the explosion of the transport's fuel tanks and the smoke and toxins they inhaled.
About a dozen soldiers, including some burn victims, had leg injuries so serious that amputation will be necessary, he said.
"We're talking about charred skin and full-skin burns," said Major Chapman, noting that 20 to 25 of the injured soldiers were burned over 60 percent to 90 percent of their body. "When you're talking about burns over 60 to 90 percent, there's a very high mortality rate because of the risk of infection even at the best burn centers, and Brooke is in that category. The death toll will rise."
He said inhalation injuries compounded the damage for the soldiers who found themselves engulfed in smoke and flame after flying metal punctured the fuel tanks of the C-141 transport sitting on the runway. The Hercules transport landed safely, and the two pilots aboard the fighter ejected after the collision.
"Usually, you have inhalation burns from, say, a house fire when people are inside," Major Chapman said. "But from what I've been told, this fireball just enveloped them in toxic fumes and gas fumes even though they were outside."
The Air Force said yesterday that a special investigative board would be convened to study the accident, which caused the largest on-base death toll in Fort Bragg's history.
Sgt. Kirk Boyd, an Air Force spokesman, said the board will be made up of officers from bases other than Pope. There will be no preliminary report on what went wrong, he said.
The accident occurred as paratroopers were preparing to load the C-141 at the Green Ramp, which is a quarter-mile to a half-mile from the single 7,500-foot runway at the 1,695-acre airfield. It is a procedure repeated 20 to 30 times a week here.
But something went wrong on Wednesday when the F-16 crashed to the ground and skidded across the runway toward the paratroopers at a speed of about 180 miles an hour.
Investigators began combing through the wreckage yesterday as the scorched hulks of the planes and the charred jump packs of the paratroopers served as a gaunt reminder of the disaster that sent hundreds of soldiers running for the lives. About 500 military personnel were in the area of the accident.
The base's flight operations were canceled yesterday and flags flew at half staff. But Sergeant Boyd said no changes in procedures for flights and aircraft loading were anticipated. He said that because of the small size of the airfield, which is surrounded by Fort Bragg, paratroopers cannot be loaded onto planes much further from the landing strip than the ramp where the accident occurred.
"We've got no place to grow," he said. "The Green Ramp the 141 was on is probably 100 to 150 yards from the edge of the base."
Worried family members flew in yesterday from across the nation, sometimes to comfort the sick, sometimes to mourn the dead.
Mack Peters and his wife, Maile, arrived from California to be with her son and his stepson, Roland Alika Souza, a 27-year-old ** sergeant who was in intensive care with lung damage, internal bleeding and a punctured liver.
"You expect them to have some risk in the military, but not in the training," Mr. Peters said. "That's why it's so hard to take."