Maj. Marie T. Rossi, a helicopter pilot who was featured in national news reports last week as she ferried cargo into battle against Iraq, was killed in a non-combat helicopter crash the day after the cease-fire, military officials say.
Rossi, one of the first American officers to cross into enemy territory when the ground assault began on Feb. 24, died Friday when her CH-47 Chinook helicopter went down "somewhere in the Desert Storm theater," said Capt. Barbara Goodno, an Army spokeswoman.
A military spokesman in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, said yesterday that she crashed near the base camp of the 18th Aviation Brigade in northern Saudi Arabia.
Two other soldiers, including Army Chief Warrant Officer Robert Hughes, of Vernon, Conn., were also killed in the crash, the cause of which was not disclosed.
Rossi, 32, was believed to be the fourth woman in the American Army to die in the Persian Gulf war. The three others were among 28 troops killed when an Iraqi Scud missile hit a barracks miles behind the front in Saudi Arabia last week.
The major, who had been stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., before going to the gulf last fall, saw combat with the 159th Aviation Battalion of the 24th Infantry Division.
She said in an interview with Cable News Network the day before the ground assault that she was proud to be one of the women going into the battle zone.
"We thought it was pretty neat that three women were going to be across the border before the rest of the battalion," she said. "In talking with them this morning, there's nervous feelings about going across, but mostly it's just readiness to go do it."
She spoke, too, of her thoughts about dying in combat. "Sometimes you have to disassociate how you feel personally about the prospect of going into war and, you know, possibly see the death that's going to be out there. But personally, as an aviator and a soldier, this is the moment that everybody trains for -- that I've trained for -- so I feel ready to meet a challenge."
Throughout the 100-hour ground war, she led Chinooks into the Iraqi desert on dozens of missions, carrying ammunition in the cargo holds and up to 2,500 gallons of jet fuel in five huge tanks slung under the helicopter's belly, where a single bullet could have exploded the aircraft.
American female soldiers are banned from fighting in the front lines, but throughout the ground war many women served at advanced supply bases so close to the front as to make little difference.
Rossi's missions took her with rapidly advancing forces of the 101st and 82d Airborne divisions, which overran southern and central Iraq and cut off and helped to decimate Iraq's elite Republican Guard at the Euphrates River.
But in the interview with CNN, she downplayed the danger. "What I am doing is no greater or less than the man who is flying next to me," she said.
Flags flew at half-staff in her hometown of Oradell, N.J., yesterday as word of Rossi's death arrived and stunned residents of the Bergen County community. Mayor Carolyn Hague called the death a tragedy.
"We are very distraught," Mayor Hague said last night. "It comes as a terrible blow, not only to the town but to everyone whose thoughts have been overseas. You feel so bad when it's one of your own."
The major's parents, Paul and Gertrude Rossi, and other family members were in seclusion at their home.