WIDOWS of ten servicemen killed when an RAF jet crashed in Iraq broke down yesterday as more traumatic details of the crash came to light.

At a collective inquest, which was opened and adjourned in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, coroner David Masters explained why the bodies - including that of the Burley-in-Wharfedale pilot, 35-year-old Flt Lieut David Stead - had been held for so long.

"It's been a harrowing and very difficult process to identify the remains of the bodies in order to reunite them," he said.

"In one case 23 body parts needed to be identified.

"The families can be certain that when the funerals are dealt with it is their loved one in the coffin. I hope that brings them some comfort."

At one point, Flt Lieut Stead's widow, Michelle, a primary school teacher, left the court as identification evidence was read out.

Mr Masters said most of the remains had been identified through DNA analysis or from dental records.

It also emerged that the aircraft sent out a 'Mayday' call just eight minutes after it took off from Baghdad International Airport on January 30.

Wing Commander Robert Gurling, a detachment commander who was in Iraq at the time of the incident, said search and rescue teams were sent out as soon as the distress call came in.

He said it wasn't long before the crash site was located 40km north west of Iraq and the plane was acknowledged as the RAF Lyneham-based Hercules.

During the hour-long hearing, Mr Masters released the bodies of all ten men in order for funerals to take place.

"I'm sorry that it has taken so long," he said. "We did not expect the time lapse to be as long as it has been until today."

Mr Masters said the final remains had only been identified on Tuesday.

Distraught relatives clutched each other for support as the names and details of their heroes were read out. The families of the captain, Flt Lt David Stead, Cpl David Williams and Flt Lt Paul Pardoel were present.

The coroner told them: "I understand the distress that some of the evidence has caused but I hope you take some comfort in knowing that we have done our best for these funerals to take place.

"This is a huge tragedy and I know the impact that it's had on all of the families who I've been in contact with and indeed upon life at RAF Lyneham. I will do my level best to conclude these inquests as soon as I possibly can.

I propose to adjourn these inquests now and I cannot say when they will be resumed. There are ongoing investigations. When the results of these investigations are known I will be in a position to make arrangements to resume these inquests."

Mr Masters said he would not be able to resume the inquests until the investigation was complete, and estimated it would take some time.

Speaking afterwards, Station Commander Paul Oborn, who arrived and left with the Lyneham families, said yesterday's events had been especially painful.

"This has been a very difficult time for the families of our fallen crew and a harrowing event, particularly in view of the length of time that is taken.

"But we are very grateful to the coroner and his team for getting us here today and being able to release the bodies so that the families can go forward with the funerals."

He also thanked members of the public for the hundreds of messages of sympathy received at RAF Lyneham, and asked for the privacy of the families to be respected.

Earlier this month an interim report from an RAF Board of Inquiry ruled out a number of causes for the crash, including sabotage, bird strike, lightning strike, mid-air collision, controlled flight into the ground, obstacle strike, problems with the aircraft's flying controls, aircraft fatigue, cargo explosion and engine fire.

Apart from Flt Lieut Stead, the dead included: Flt Lieut Andrew Smith, 25; Flt Lieut Paul Pardoel, 35, originally from Melbourne; Master Engineer Gary Nicholson, 42; Chief Technician Richard Brown, 40; Flt Lieut Mark Gibson, 34; Sgt Robert O'Connor, 38, and Corporal David Williams, 37, who were all based at RAF Lyneham.

The remaining two men aboard the plane were Squadron Leader Patrick Marshall, 39, from Strike Command Headquarters at RAF High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and Acting Lance Corporal Steven Jones, 25, a soldier from the Royal Signals who was a passenger on the Hercules.