HAWAII (KHON) – The U.S. Coast Guard announced Tuesday that at sunset, crews suspended the active search for 12 Marines missing after Thursday night’s double helicopter crash off the North Shore.
This was the fifth day of a multi-agency search-and-rescue mission.
Capt. Jim Jenkins, U.S. Coast Guard District 14 chief of staff, called it a difficult decision, made after careful analysis.
“A decision to suspend searching without finding survivors is extremely difficult given the depth of its impact and I know I speak for the entire Coast Guard when I say our thoughts and prayers are with Marine Corps helicopter squadron and particularly with families and loved ones of those missing,” said Capt. Jim Jenkins, chief of staff and acting commander, Coast Guard 14th District. “Nothing can ease the pain of the families of those missing, but I hope that the efforts, the knowledge that so many were willing to put forward so much effort to try to bring those Marines home, will provide some solace in the future.”
Jenkins said in the five days of continuous searching, crews located some crash debris as well as helicopter wreckage on the sea floor, two miles offshore in about 325 feet of water.
“So far we’ve found widespread debris field on the ocean floor with parts of aircraft, and that’s the extent of it at this point in time,” Jenkins said. “We’re confident that these aircraft parts are associated with this crash and we are collecting information as we speak.”
All four life rafts aboard the two aircraft were recovered, and there was no indication that any survivors had been aboard any of the life rafts, officials said.
The Marine Corps will now take the lead role for any salvage and the ongoing investigation into the cause of the incident.
“As we transition our efforts to recovery and salvage operations and continue to provide support to the families of our Marines, we thank you, the Coast Guard, the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, the civilian organizations have been nothing but outstanding. We support them 100 percent and we thank them for what they did,” said Brig. Gen. Russell Sanborn, commanding general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
Unlike airplanes, officials tell us the Super Stallions did not have black boxes.
Sanborn stressed the importance of “the recovery of any of the debris and any other remains that may be discovered, so that we can get closure to those families that are still out there that still want that final piece to the puzzle.”
A memorial for the 12 Marines is tentatively planned for Friday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Details will be posted.
As of sunset Tuesday, the Coast Guard and military partners conducted a cumulative search effort of 40,530 sq. nautical miles, plus the extensive shoreline effort by the Honolulu Fire and Police Departments with Ocean Safety Lifeguard Service.
More than 130 individual searches were conducted over five days, a continuous sustained search effort of 115 hours. The searches are layered on top of each other to provide multiple perspectives and fresh eyes on scene.
Officials said the Marines with 1st Marine Aircraft Wing were the only ones on the island assigned to fly the CH-53E heavy-lift transport helicopters, also known as Super Stallions.
Marine Corps Base Hawaii spokesman Capt. Timothy Irish described them as “extremely reliable and safe aircraft” and training with the aircraft is part of a routine schedule.
“As part of the squadrons’ role to operate day or night in a variety of weather conditions, they will train in low-light conditions and darkness, using the aid of night vision goggles,” he said.
The USNS Salvor, a safeguard-class salvage ship from the Military Sealift Command, arrived on scene late Sunday from Pearl Harbor to support the Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1’s efforts to conduct an underwater search of the last known position of the aircraft off Haleiwa with sonar and a remotely operated vehicle. MDSU-1 conducted searches Sunday but did not sight any debris.
“Coast Guard search and rescue planners use software and modeling to assist in identifying the most promising search areas. When looking for someone in the water, whether they are in the water on their own, have flotation or are in a life raft, it significantly affects where currents can carry them and where we should direct our search. The ocean around Hawaii can also be unpredictable, so the Coast Guard uses Self Locating Datum Marker Buoys placed in the currents we are dealing with to more accurately model the conditions,” said Lt. Scott Carr, Coast Guard 14th District public affairs officer.
At a press conference Sunday, Sanborn extended his thoughts and prayers to the families affected. He had flown in from Okinawa, where he is stationed.
He said he understands the “tremendous emotional rollercoaster” the families, having himself been shot down and considered missing-in-action during Operation Desert Storm.
Jenkins said debris consistent with the helicopters has been collected and consolidated by the Marine Corps, although he did not specify what in particular has been recovered. The debris was collected along the North Shore, both off- and near-shore.
Jenkins said then that any decision to halt the search would involve advance notice to the affected families and the press.
On Saturday night, the Coast Guard Hercules crew engaged in the search was struck by a green laser off Haleiwa Beach Park. The crew was not directly exposed and did not need to land. They were forced, however, to alter their search pattern to minimize the chances of being struck again and exposed.
During nighttime missions, laser beams can cause temporary loss of night vision, glaring and flash blindness, putting the crew members’ lives in jeopardy. Targeting a laser at an aircraft is illegal, and the FAA can impose a maximum civil penalty of $11,000 on an individual for each violation of regulations that prohibit interfering with flight crews.
Also on Saturday, groups of Marines combed the beaches from Kaena Point to Turtle Bay, walking along the North Shore searching for any pieces of evidence and debris. They scoured the shoreline, using metal detectors in the water and on the beach.
The overall search was expanded from Waianae to Kahuku, extending out to sea eight miles. Honolulu Emergency Medical Services staffed one EMS ambulance with two paramedics for a standby at the command post at Haleiwa Alii Beach Park.
Marine Corps Base Hawaii spokesman Capt. Alex Lim said, “We are going to do whatever we can to find them. They are family.”
Several factors beyond crews’ control, such as large surf and strong, shifting currents, made the search exceedingly difficult, officials said.