Military helicopter had aborted training mission before fatal crash, official says

Military helicopter found, hope for survivors dwindles
Military helicopter found, hope for survivors dwindles

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Story highlights

  • All on the Black Hawk helicopter were killed in the crash
  • Four National Guard aircrew members and seven Marines died
  • Crash happened Tuesday in foggy conditions

(CNN)A Black Hawk helicopter that went down in waters off the Florida Panhandle three days ago -- killing 11 service members -- had aborted a training mission due to bad weather before it crashed, a military official said Friday.

On the same day that officials released the names of the seven Marines who were aboard, new details emerged Friday on the fatal mission at the Santa Rosa Sound near Eglin Air Force Base.
As officials continue to investigate why the aircraft went down in thick fog Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman -- commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) -- told reporters that the Black Hawk was one of two that had to abort exercises involving water "insertion and extraction techniques" before the crash.
    "My understanding is ... that they were flying as we normally do -- two aircraft together," Osterman said. "As they went in, they encountered bad weather and made the decision to wave off and to abort the training mission. At that point, the one helicopter obviously made it back and determined that the second helicopter was not back with them in that return."
    The crash occurred at night -- hours after the two helicopters had successfully completed the same training exercise in daylight.

    Communication lost

    The Black Hawk helicopters were training near Eglin as heavy fog shrouded the sound -- a narrow body of water between mainland northern Florida and a barrier island -- about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the military said.
    "The fog was moving in and out," Osterman said. "I think they had done the pre-assessment before going in, said that everything appeared to be OK, but then -- even in route -- made the decision (that) the risk was too high."
    The second helicopter lost communication with the missing aircraft and returned to begin the search operation, Osterman said.
    That operation has transitioned from rescue to recovery, with the military focused on recovering the helicopter, military officials said. Searchers found the helicopter at the bottom of the sound, and the bodies of the seven Marines and four Army National Guard members who were aboard.
    The bodies of at least two National Guard members were recovered Thursday, and the remains of the other two were believed to be in the underwater wreckage 25 feet below the surface, the Guard said. The crew members were with 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion from Hammond, Louisiana, according to a statement from the Louisiana National Guard.

    Marines identified

    Osterman said the remains will be taken to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification and forensic examinations before being turned over to the soldiers' families for burial.
    On Friday, MARSOC, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, identified the seven Marines who perished in the crash as Capt. Stanford H. Shaw, III, 31, of Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, of Williamsburg, Virginia; Staff Sgt. Marcus S. Bawol, 26, of Warren, Michigan; Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29, of Lake Orion, Michigan; Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn, 33, of Queens, New York; Staff Sgt. Kerry M. Kemp, 27, of Port Washington, Wisconsin; and Staff Sgt. Andrew C. Seif, 26, of Holland, Michigan.
    The names of the four Louisiana National Guard members were not released.
    "To have such a tremendous group of Marines -- obviously the experience that they had, the cohesion and teamwork and everything else that they exhibited -- it definitely hit us all hard by having that many at one time," Osterman said of the deaths.
    The cause of the crash is under investigation.
    Mark Giuliano, chief of the Eglin Air Force Base's fire department, said a couple of military boats already were in the water for safety purposes as part of the exercise but that "nobody saw anything because of the dense fog."
    "People said they heard a loud bang, and that was it," Giuliano said Thursday.

    Second Black Hawk got back safely

    The second Black Hawk -- which, like the first, was assigned to the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion based in Hammond, Louisiana -- safely returned to the base, some 40 miles east of Pensacola.
    Military personnel search for wreckage under heavy fog at Eglin Air Force Base.
    "Whatever the trouble was with the one aircraft, it did not involve the second helicopter that was participating in the exercise," Eglin spokesman Andy Bourland said earlier this week.
    Giuliano said the fire department, which has a unit on Santa Rosa Island near the crash site, was called to help at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, roughly 90 minutes after the crash. The military boats that were part of the mission already had been searching for survivors and wreckage, he said.
    Military officials have said it's too early to know whether the fog contributed to the crash.
    The 11 service members, all men, were involved in a seven-day training exercise of amphibious operations, said Capt. Barry Morris, a spokesman for the U.S. Marines Corps Special Operations Command. It involved small boats, and inserting and extracting Marines from the water via helicopter. Morris would not say which phase of the training the Marines were in Tuesday night.

    Wreckage found Wednesday

    The initial search was hampered by dense fog, to the point that searchers on boats "could not see," Giuliano said.
    On Wednesday morning, after searchers got a sonar hit, a diver found the bulk of the wreck at the bottom of the sound, Giuliano said.
    Divers then went into the water "to start retrieving the aircrew," Giuliano said, without specifying how many bodies were recovered.
    The helicopter had broken into several pieces in a "high-impact crash," he said.
    The Coast Guard has hired a salvage company from Mobile, Alabama, to take the wreckage from the water, Giuliano said.
    On Wednesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the crash was "a reminder to us that those who serve put themselves at risk, both in training and in combat."
    "We will work with the services to ensure that ... their family members will be well cared for."
    Osterman said the 2,500 MARSOC troops have been deployed to Afghanistan and other conflict zones during the last eight years -- earning seven Navy Crosses, 19 Silver Stars, 207 Bronze Stars and 189 Purple Hearts.
    "It is a very tight organization, and many of these Marines and sailors associated with MARSOC are more senior Marines," Osterman said. "Their families are all very close. In this particular case, they were all from the same team so they were very, very close. And everyone immediately rallied together."