By Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Kaminsky
Search teams found the wreckage of an Army Black Hawk helicopter reported missing during a training mission off Florida’s Gulf Coast and were working to locate the bodies of 11 service members killed in the crash, US officials said on Thursday.
“At this point we are not hopeful for survivors, and we are transitioning our search and rescue operation to a recovery and safety investigation,” Air Force Colonel Monte Cannon told a news conference in Navarre, Florida.
Seven Marines and four soldiers were on the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that plunged into the Santa Rosa Sound along the Florida Panhandle during a training exercise in foggy conditions Tuesday night.
Some human remains and debris have washed ashore. The Louisiana National Guard said on Thursday that two of the soldiers’ bodies had been recovered and the other two were likely still underwater in the wrecked aircraft.
Officials said they had not determined the cause of the crash. A second helicopter in the exercise turned back due to the weather and was able to land safely.
Persistent fog has hampered the search efforts, which began after officials at the nearby Eglin Air Force Base were notified of the crash at around 10 pm on Tuesday, said Mark Giuliano, fire chief at the base.
Sonar equipment helped locate the helicopter on Wednesday in the middle of the bay, Giuliano said.
“It was certainly a high-impact crash,” he said, adding the helicopter had broken into multiple pieces.
The Marines on board were part of a special operations unit from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. They were conducting training involving “helicopter and boat insertion and extraction,” with an experienced Army air crew providing the helicopter support, a Marine Corps spokesman said.
The soldiers and the helicopter were part of the Louisiana National Guard assigned to an Army unit based in Hammond, Louisiana.
Grieving families have begun sharing the names of the dead, whose identities have not yet been released by the military. Among the dead Marines were Marcus Bawol, of Warren, Michigan, and Kerry Kemp, formerly of Port Washington, Wisconsin, local media reported.