By NATHAN WHALEN, JESSIE STENSLAND
The Oak Harbor community is mourning the loss of three crew members aboard an EA-6B Prowler that crashed during routine training exercises in Eastern Washington Monday morning.
The names of the Navy personnel killed will not be released until 24 hours after family members are informed and after press deadline for the Whidbey News-Times.
The Prowler, from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, crashed just before 9 a.m. Monday into a farm field 50 miles west of Spokane.
The aircraft was assigned to Electronic Attack Squadron 129.
As officials released condolences to the families, more than 100 people gathered Monday night to honor the three Navy aviators in a candlelight vigil.
The quickly-organized ceremony was set on the lawn next to the Oak Harbor Yacht Club adjacent to the Seaplane Base, where people offered prayers for the flyers who died as well as their families.
“It’s hard. These families are going through hell,” resident Andy Mahoney said during a prayer he offered. “They’re going to need their community to rally around them.”
He quoted Psalm 68:5: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”
Matt Oliver, minister at Oak Harbor Church of Christ, also offered a prayer.
“I give thanks for being of a community that would lift these folks up to you,” he said.
Tara Hizon, an Oak Harbor City Council member, helped organize the vigil along with the assistance of Tina Wieldraayer-Provoncha and Nicole McDonald.
“I just couldn’t sit home and do nothing,” Hizon said.
She put the word out about the vigil on Facebook and Twitter. The trio started organizing the vigil at around 3:30 p.m.
Hizon said she was “blown away” by the number of people who participated.
“As you can see, the wind and the rain can’t keep people from coming,” said Jonathan Edmiston, who had recently retired from the Navy. He helped pass out candles to well-wishers.
Hizon said she contacted the governor’s office for approval that flags can be flown at half staff.
Wieldraayer-Provoncha noted the show of support that took place even though it took a few hours to organize.
“Thank you to everybody for coming to show we’re behind our military community 100 percent,” Wieldraayer-Provoncha said to the crowd.
Tuesday, Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley sent a message to Navy officials.
“Our thoughts, prayers and condolences extend to the Navy community during this difficult
time,” he wrote.¬†”Your loss is felt throughout the Oak Harbor area as our lives are so closely intertwined.¬†To the families and
friends of those lost, we know that no words can help ease the pain and loss that you are feeling right now. But, however deep the sorrow is today, may your memories comfort you tomorrow.¬†Please let us know if there is anything we can do.”
Capt. Mike Nortier, the commanding officer of NAS Whidbey Island, released a statement thanking the community for the outpouring of support.
“This is a time for reflection and understanding,” he said. “These young aviators selflessly served their nation and its citizens. They were truly among our nation’s best and brightest. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their friends, fellow squadron members and especially their families.”
While the community grieves, Navy investigators are looking into the cause of the accident.
Lt. Aaron V. Kakiel, a public affairs officer, said there’s an automatic safety investigation, plus the squadron commanded may ask for a parallel “JAG manual investigation.” He said the safety investigation will likely take a couple of months. He said it won’t be made public.
“It’s about what happened and what he can learn from it,” he said. “It’s not about assigning blame.”
The EA-6B Prowler is a twin-engine, mid-wing electronic warfare aircraft. The aging aircraft is being replaced through a phased transition to the EA-18G Growler.