Marines: Pilots not to blame for deadly 2000 Osprey crash

WASHINGTON -- After 16 years, two Marine Corps widows saw their husbands vindicated Friday. The Pentagon now says the two pilots were unfairly blamed for the fatal crash of a revolutionary aircraft.

A review of the investigation found no fault with the plane, but says the pilots were not adequately trained and weren't warned about potentially dangerous flight maneuvers.

Two Marine widows and their families met with the deputy Secretary of Defense to hear their late husbands cleared of blame for a deadly crash. Brooke Gruber was eight months old when it happened and has grown up with the shadow hanging over her father.

"'Did you father cause the crash, since he was the pilot?"' Brooke said friends would ask. "I would have to say, 'Of course not.'"

In April of 2000, a V-22 Marine tilt-rotor Osprey crashed during a night landing in Arizona. The horrific fireball was recorded by a camera on a second V-22.

The two pilots, Lt. Col. John Brow and Maj. Brooks Gruber, were killed instantly along with 17 other Marines.

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Marine Corps pilots Lt. Col. John Brow, left, and Maj. Brooks Gruber were killed along with 17 other Marines when their V-22 Osprey crashed in Arizona in April 2000. CBS News

Announcing the findings of the accident investigation, a Marine Corps press release stated "the fatal factor" was Brow and Gruber's decision to complete that night's mission by attempting a landing that required them to descend too rapidly.

For Connie Gruber, that made the loss of her husband all the more painful.

"It felt like he had died once in the Arizona desert and it felt like he died again in the press," Gruber told CBS News.

She said by using the phrase "the fatal factor," the Marines appeared to "basically protect the aircraft over the pilots."

At the time of the crash, the V-22 with its revolutionary tilt-rotor technology was a controversial aircraft in danger of being cancelled.

"I felt betrayed for my husband," Gruber said.

With the help of North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones, she set out to reverse the verdict.

Finally, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work -- himself a former Marine -- reviewed the evidence and issued a letter which read, "I disagree that the pilots' drive to accomplish the mission was 'the fatal factor' that contributed to the accident."

"I knew right then that that's exactly what we needed to have said publicly," Gruber said.

Work concluded, "I hope this letter will provide the widows... some solace after years in which the blame for the... accident was incorrectly interpreted... to be primarily attributed to their husbands."

When she received the letter, Gruber said, "We went out to the cemetery, my daughter and I, and we placed it on the grave there."

"We rubbed our hands across his name and we said, 'This is your legacy," Brooke Gruber said. "'Now it's honorable and you can finally rest in peace, the way you should have 16 years ago.'"

Mission -- finally -- accomplished.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.