A community was in shock yesterday as news spread of the devastating helicopter crash which claimed the lives of four air crew based in Lakenheath.

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People in the village as well as the towns of Brandon and Mildenhall, for whom the USAF base is a constant neighbour and an economic support, expressed shock and sorrow at news of the crash in Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

Yesterday it became clear that investigating the crash was going to be a painstaking process. The bodies of the air crew will not be recovered until at least this morning.

Air accident, RAF and US investigators spent the day at the scene of the tragedy in a marsh on the north Norfolk coast.

Norfolk Police confirmed paramedics were not needed to treat those inside the helicopter, suggesting they died on impact or soon after.

However police declined to comment on how the accident had occurred, saying it would be “foolish to speculate” whether a bird strike had been a factor.

Debris from the crash is believed to have been strewn across an area the size of a football pitch.

The investigation is being hampered by the fact that the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter was carrying munitions, meaning that bullets are scattered around the scene.

The feeling of those living near the air base in Lakenheath was summed up by the vice-chairman of Lakenheath Parish Council Ian Smith.

“The first impression is of course shock,” he said. “You don’t expect these things to happen but unfortunately they do. The second one is a feeling of loss for somebody from the local base and thoughts of their family.”

Mr Smith continued: “I have had a few calls from some people and other parish councillors and they are very shocked about this, to lose four personnel in one crash is such a shock, and the village is going to be very supportive of the base.

“They’ve formed a large part of the local community. Socially they get involved with the local village, they send their children to local schools, and personnel from the base come along to local fetes.

“We recently had a group of Americans come to do a clear up at one of the local nature reserve. There are lots of ways in which they help local pubs and villages.”

The USAF has operated out of the base since 1968. In 2011 RAF Lakenheath had almost 5,000 employees living off-base and alongside RAF Mildenhall pumped £585.6 million into the economy as a result of employment, investment, use of local businesses and spending by employees.

One local business owner heard about the crash from his customers, a few of whom live and work on the base.

Will Huang of Wok N Rock based in the Plough Inn on Mill Road said: “We just feel sorry about it. For the airmen being killed it’s really sad.

“Before they get a final result to find out the facts we shouldn’t comment too much about it… but I think people will be impacted by it.”

The integration between military personnel and the community was underlined by Colin Noble, county councillor for Row Heath.

“When I heard about the incident, it brings it home that there are families in this area who are going to be getting tragic news today,” he said.

“USAF has been here since the war in one form or another and is very much a part of the community.”

Susan Byles, principal at Mildenhall Academy, said around 50 children at the school lived on the airbases.

She said children had been discussing the incident and that staff were available for support if necessary.

“Many of our young people have a connection to the base and everybody has been talking about what has happened.

“It’s come as a shock and we all have great sympathy for the people who have lost loved ones,” she said.

In Salthouse, Norfolk yesterday afternoon, Chief Superintendent Bob Scully refused to comment on speculation that a bird strike could have contributed to the crash.

He said: “It would be foolish to speculate. There are so many different scenarios and assumptions do not make for a good investigation.”

Military investigators from the US and UK are expected to work together to establish exactly what happened once the police involvement was over, he added.

A 400-metre police cordon is expected to remain in place until Monday and the public have been asked to stay away.

Investigators are aware of how much ammunition was on board and are attempting to account for it all.

Matthew Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, described Lakenheath as “close-knit”.

“I know that this tragic loss of life will be deeply felt… My heartfelt condolences are with the families and comrades of the airmen killed in the crash.

“In Suffolk we never forget that the presence of the men and women of the 48th Fighter Wing helps guarantee Britain’s security and shared freedoms. This crash reminds us of the bravery of our allies, in training and in war.

“I also wish to pay tribute to the emergency services, who had to confront both difficult terrain and the presence of live ammunition as they arrived at the scene of the crash.”

Stephen Edwards, acting chairman of Brandon, said the effects would be felt across the community.

“It’s an absolute tragedy and our sympathies go out to those involved.

“The base is very much an integral part of this town and I am sure this will be keenly felt by local people,” he said.

James Waters, leader of Forest Heath District Council, said he had woken up to the news this morning and had been “stunned”.

“The base is such a massive part of where we are and when this kind of thing happens it makes you realise how those men and women, who live in our communities, put themselves at risk so often for our safety.

“Both bases, Lakenheath and Mildenhall, are absolutely key to this area and base members are familiar faces in our towns.

“We offer our deepest condolences and sympathies to those involved,” he said.

At the base itself, flags flew at half-mast while a press corps gathered outside.

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