Marine Crew Chief Who Died in Australia Osprey Crash Remembered at Hometown Vigil

Memorial photos show victims ofOsprey crash
From left to right, Major Tobin J. Lewis, Corporal Spencer R. Collart, and Captain Eleanor V. LeBeau are memorialized at a table in front of the Collarts’ home. Stella was the family’s beloved dog before she passed. ( photo by Drew F. Lawrence)

As dusk settled on a quiet neighborhood in Northern Virginia on Thursday night, dozens of electric candles began to materialize in the hands of admirers and well-wishers of Cpl. Spencer Collart, a Marine crew chief who -- along with two other Marines -- was killed in a V-22 Osprey crash in Australia almost two weeks ago.

Looking like blinking fireflies, they gathered around a light green bungalow that's just 10 minutes away from where Spencer will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. The home belongs to his family and, by the time the sun completely set, the street was lit by roughly 200 people carrying flickering lights, waiting for the vigil to begin.

In front of the Collarts' porch was a table that held pictures of the three Marines who died in the crash. Spencer's photo was flanked by those of Capt. Eleanor LeBeau and Maj. Tobin Lewis, the two pilots who were operating the aircraft that carried 20 other troops. Those 20 service members survived the immediate crash, which occurred during a multinational exercise in Australia. Some were rushed to a hospital in the Northern Territory of the country, just south of the Tiwi Islands where the Osprey went down.

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The vigil came two days after the Marines' remains arrived at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, on Tuesday. Only one of the 20 Marines who made it out of the crash remained in the hospital on Friday, the family and Marine Corps told

An investigation into the crash is ongoing, and the cause is still unknown.

Pastor Greg O'Dell, an elder from Cherrydale Baptist Church where Spencer attended, led moments of silence for each of the fallen three. As the crowd hushed and bowed their heads, the sounds of the neighborhood where Spencer grew up filled the silence -- the distant hum of Interstate 66, dogs barking and late-summer cicadas.

"He was the one that would go up and down and pull their straps to make sure they were buckled down," O'Dell said, recalling the last conversation he had with Spencer in which they talked about his job as crew chief -- a highly respected and important position in Marine Corps aviation that, along with the pilots, is responsible for the well-being of the aircraft and crew.

"He was the one if they needed to bail out, he would open the back door and start bailing them out," the pastor said. "He protected his Marines that came on to that Osprey, and so did the pilots."

The Osprey was flying alongside another aircraft when it went down. While the Osprey's incident rate per 100,000 flight hours is lower compared to some other airframes, the tiltrotor aircraft has experienced a troubling clutch issue that caused a crash that killed five Marines last year.

A separate deadly Osprey crash in March was blamed on pilot error, according to service investigators.

There are no answers yet as to what caused the crash late last month. But the three stewards of the aircraft -- who were charged with protecting those onboard -- landed the Osprey in a way that let 20 Marines live another day, even though they themselves died.

"They have been called heroes by those that were there, and they're the best judge of that," O'Dell said.

Many memorializers wept as they listened to stories from Spencer's friends and family. Some recalled that he put up a hard exterior, sometimes bristling at authority as a teenager. But he was also remembered as sweet and caring, and as someone who would always pick up the phone when a loved one was in need.

His father, Bart Collart, was wearing his son's much-too-large size 12 sandals and boonie hat. He described his son as his "superhero buddy" and recalled watching him grow up from the comic book-loving kid he was to the Marine he became.

"He was a tough brother, but he was the best and he was also the most selfless, kind and gentle giant," his sister Gwyneth Collart said.

As lightning rumbled in the night sky, Mitchell Downing, a former camp counselor to Collart, played a rendition of "Africa" by Toto -- one of the Marine's longtime favorite songs.

One by one, the crowd began to sing as Downing played the keyboard.

Spencer's mother, Alexia Collart, wore a gold pin from his squadron. She had shown the gathering a patterned shawl -- a gift from an artist from the Tiwi Islands that another Marine brought back to the U.S. for the Collarts.

"Spencer was my protector," his mother said. "He was your protector. He was an extraordinary young man who found his tribe with the Marines."

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

Related: Marine Corps Identifies 3 Troops Killed in Osprey Crash During Australia Training

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