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Work Continues At Army Crash Site, Hampered By Fog

Bob Barrett

  The Louisiana National Guard says the bodies of two soldiers have been recovered from a helicopter wreck off the Florida Panhandle. The Coast Guard Thursday suspended the search for any survivors among the soldiers and Marines missing in Santa Rosa Sound.

A news release from the Guard said the bodies of two others are believed to still be inside the wreckage, under 25 feet of water. But officials cannot confirm that, until a salvage crew is able to recover the aircraft. The flight recorder also remains on board.

Air Force Col. Monte Cannon says after more than a day patrolling Santa Rosa Sound in heavy fog, rain and rough surf, the decision was made to shift the mission’s focus.

“It will be led by a team from the Army Combat Readiness Center, Louisiana Army National Guard, and the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command,” said Cannon.

The UH-60 Black Hawks were from an Army National Guard unit in Hammond, Louisiana. The Marines were members of a special ops force from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.

There’s no word yet on what caused the crash, but the weather was bad enough for another helicopter on the training run to return to base. Eglin spokesman Mike Spaits says that crew will be an essential part of the investigation.

The Eglin Air Force Base Fire Department began the search and rescue Tuesday night. Chief Mark Giuliano says they were accompanied by boats from the Niceville Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard, and Florida Fish and Wildlife. That search, says Giuliano, was conducted in dense fog.

“Boats that did get on-scene could not see,” said the Chief. “I had requested additional assets from the Coast Guard – boats with sonar. Until those assets arrived on-scene, we were pretty much searching in the blind, just basically out on the surface.”

Eglin firefighters also responded to reports of debris and human remains washing up on the north side of Choctawhatchee Bay near US Highway 98. They were collected and brought to a staging area for investigation by military investigators and medical examiners. Giuliano says a sonar hit revealed the possible location of the chopper.

A quickly-devised dive plan was carried out Wednesday afternoon, as divers began their work recovering the air crew that remained in the helicopter in nearly zero visibility underwater.

The Coast Guard has contacted a salvage firm from Mobile to raise the helicopter from the Sound. But it’s likely that weather conditions the next few days will hamper – or possibly delay – that operation.