NAVARRE, Florida — Divers found the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed amid dense fog during a Florida training mission, killing 11 Marines and soldiers, but more bad weather prevented the recovery of bodies and the flight recorder from wreckage 25 feet deep.
The military’s response officially changed from search-and-rescue to search-and-recovery after divers inspected the aircraft’s shattered core, Col. Monte Cannon, vice-commander of the 96th Test Wing, said at Eglin Air Force Base.
“It was certainly a high-impact crash,” said Eglin Fire Chief Mark Giuliano, and “very, very, very dense fog” still complicates the response. There’s almost no visibility at the crash site, forcing search crews to move slowly in rough surf to avoid running into each other or wreckage, he said.
The bodies of two soldiers were recovered, but two others are believed to remain inside the wreckage, said Maj. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana Army National Guard, which flew the helicopter carrying the Marines Special Operations Command forces from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
One of the Marines killed was Kerry Kemp, whose wife, Jenna, was notified overnight that her husband’s remains had been found. Kemp was a “proud Marine, a loving husband and most wonderful father,” with a child about to turn 1, said his sister-in-law, Lora Waraksa of Port Washington, Wisconsin.
Another victim was Marcus Bawol, 27, from Warren, Michigan, north of Detroit. His sister, Brandy Peek, said military officials told the family they had identified his remains. Bawol “loved everything about the military,” Peek said.
The military is not yet releasing any details about those killed, nor has it described the cause of the crash, which happened Tuesday night in weather conditions so bad that another helicopter turned back.
The same fog and crashing Gulf waves surrounded a pier where a large gathering held vigil Wednesday night, creating a somber backdrop to the songs, tears and prayers of people with strong ties to the military and the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base.
Dozens of airmen walked the shores of Santa Rosa Sound on Thursday, and the Coast Guard searched for debris in the water, said Mike Spaits, a base spokesman. Pieces of clothing and bits of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter have washed ashore, and homeowners have contacted the military to pick it up, he said.
“My heart is really hurt right now knowing these people were here just on training – knowing they went and left their family members and did not give that goodbye, you know, because they weren’t going off to war,” a tearful Dolly Edwards, herself the wife of a Marine, said at the vigil.
Jack Cullen, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Mobile, Alabama, said Thursday’s dense sea fog could persist through Friday, which is common when warm southern air meets cold water this time of year.
The helicopter that crashed had a veteran crew from Hammond, Louisiana, that served multiple tours in Iraq and helped humanitarian missions after Gulf Coast hurricanes and the BP oil spill.
They were carrying “unconventional warriors” from the Marines Special Operations Command. Like the Army’s Green Berets and the Navy’s SEALs, they were highly trained to endure grueling conditions and sensitive assignments on land and at sea, from seizing ships to special reconnaissance missions and direct action inside hostile territory.
Tuesday night’s training involved practicing “insertion and extraction missions,” using small boats and helicopters to get troops into and out of a target site, said Capt. Barry Morris, spokesman for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The helicopter crashed in a strip of water between the mainland of the Florida Panhandle and a long barrier island facing the Gulf. Military officials said search crews were focused on a 6-mile stretch of the sound.
Kim Urr, 62, who works at a nearby campground, said she heard the crash at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“It sounded like something metal either being hit or falling over, that’s what it sounded like. And there were two booms afterward, similar to what you hear with ordnance booms, but more muffled,” Urr said.
Human remains were found Wednesday, and debris was seen floating in the sound.
“We saw gloves, a uniform with a last name on it,” said Alan Collinsworth, a hotel desk clerk. Lots of debris was floating past the hotel’s waterfront. “We were very shocked.”
President Barack Obama has promised a thorough investigation.
Associated Press contributors include Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Kevin McGill and Stacey Plaisance in Hammond, Louisiana; and Emery P. Dalesio at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina