12 Marines missing after double helicopter crash off Haleiwa

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, Jan. 19, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended the active search for the missing Marines after five full days of searching with no sign of survivors. View the update here. 

Haleiwa Small Boat Harbor is open and officials are asking the public to not touch any debris from this incident. If you find any debris, you are asked to call Marine Corps Base Hawaii Emergency Operations Center at (808) 257-8458 or (808) 257-3023.

Marine Corps Base Hawaii spokesman Capt. Alex Lim tells KHON2 Saturday that Marines are searching on foot a designated area from Kaena Point to Turtle Bay in hopes of finding debris from Thursday night’s double helicopter crash in waters off Haleiwa.

The Coast Guard did report that a search has produced two life rafts — one inflated and the other not — but could not confirm if the rafts were part of the debris of the crash.

Honolulu Ocean Safety lifeguards are also assisting the military with its search for 12 missing service members off of Oahu’s north shore. Lifeguards are searching about a mile offshore from Haleiwa to Kahuku.

For the second day, Ocean Safety has added two additional rescue water crafts to ensure regular operations continue as normal.

The surf is declining, but it is still 15-20 foot on average, so the public is asked to stay away from the shorelines.

Honolulu Emergency Medical Services have staffed one EMS ambulance with two paramedics for a standby at the command post at Haleiwa Beach Park.

haleiwa command center saturday

A massive search-and-rescue effort is underway after two U.S. Marine Corps helicopters crashed off Haleiwa late Thursday night.

Honolulu police closed off Haleiwa Alii Beach Park to the public Friday as a unified command post has been established at Haleiwa Small Boat Harbor to direct efforts in hopes to find survivors. The area is expected to remain closed for several days.

A total of 12 crew members — six were on board each helicopter — remain missing at this time.

Sgt. Dillon Semolina and Ty Hart (Photos provided by their families)
Related Story: Families identify Marines missing after helicopters crash off Haleiwa

Crews braved incredibly rough conditions, including large, life-threatening surf and low visibility, to scour the water. Conditions improved as the day progressed, but not by much.

“Our lifeguards are capable of handling this large surf, but even for them, this morning’s visibility was very poor and conditions were hazardous, so they weren’t able to stay out for that long,” said Shayne Enright, Ocean Safety division.

“Right now, it’s kind of a guessing game which way the currents are pulling. We have a general idea so the search has actually expanded in a wider area right now,” said Guy Chang, Department of Land and Natural Resources.

There have been multiple reports of debris washing up on shore, though KHON2 has yet to confirm if they are in fact from the crash.

The public is advised to stay out of North Shore waters over the next several days during the rescue and recovery operation.

Officials are also urging people to leave the searching to professionals.

“We definitely appreciate the willingness to assist, but at this time we don’t want anyone out in the ocean that doesn’t need to be out there and isn’t a trained rescuer,” said Lt. Kevin Cooper, U.S. Coast Guard. “As you can imagine, any debris that is associated will be very important and we don’t want it to be tainted or modified in any way.”

USMC officials say they lost contact with the aircraft, identified as two CH-53E heavy-lift transport helicopters, also known as “Super Stallions,” at around 10:45 p.m. Thursday.

Witnesses told KHON2 they called 911 at around 10:45 p.m. after hearing what sounded like a sonic boom. Residents said it felt like an earthquake.

“We heard a helicopter and it kind of sounded like, I don’t know, something off. It sounded like extremely loud and rumbling, like engine problems,” said Melissa Bush. “All of a sudden, we didn’t hear the helicopter. We looked out and there was literally fire, and right in front of us, fire and flames coming down… As they were coming down, all of a sudden you see a big fire explosion and then all of a sudden we didn’t see anything. It went black.”

Capt. Timothy Irish said the helicopters, with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, Marine Aircraft Group 24, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, were involved in “a routine pre-planned training mission from a unit permanently assigned to the base to fly at night and return to the base.”

Maj. Gregory, assistant operations officer with the community aircraft group, said it was part of a weekly training mission for increasing combat readiness, specifically landings and low-level flight in the training area.

“Any time you fly at night, there’s going to be a risk,” he said, “but it was a training mission … (with) no increased level of danger or increased levels of threats to them.” The major added that there was no information available as to whether a mayday or distress signal was sent previous to the accident.

The cause of the accident is under investigation by the Marine Corps.

Search and rescue personnel with military, federal, state and city agencies joined forces in the search-and-rescue operation.

The mission included four personal rescue watercrafts from Ocean Safety, a Navy MH-60 helicopter from Kaneohe Bay, a Honolulu Fire Department helicopter and rescue boat, Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and HC-130 Hercules airplane, as well as cutters Ahi and Kiska. Ahi is an 87-foot patrol boat that was in Maui. Kiska is a 110-foot patrol boat that reached the search area from Hilo at about 5 a.m.

According to Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Sara Mooers, searchers spotted a fire and a debris field, including an empty life raft, about 2.5 miles north of Haleiwa Beach. The debris field was about 1.5 miles wide and seven miles offshore and, according to USCG Lt. Scott Carr, was “consistent with military aircraft.”

The Coast Guard says a safety zone has been established between Kaena Point and Turtle Bay, though “with 10-12 knot winds, swells at 16 feet, and breaking surf at 30 feet, it’s moving the debris all over the place,” Carr noted.

USCG Lt. Cooper said any reports of debris will be incorporated into their search efforts. More than 50 Marines were present at the command post to help identify the debris and scan the shoreline.

As of Friday afternoon, no dive teams were sent into the water. “It’s just barely safe for our rescue crews to be out there, so it’s not safe for divers just yet,” said Cooper.

Related Story: Marines offer counseling, support while ‘holding out hope’ for crash survivors

This isn’t the first crash involving a Marine helicopter.

In March 1993, a transport helicopter spun out of control and crashed into waters off Kaneohe. Three Marines were injured.

In March 2011, a CH-53 Sea Stallion crashed on the sandbar in Kaneohe Bay. Marine Cpl. Jonathan Faircloth was killed, and three other crew members were hurt.

This prompted the Marine Corps in Hawaii to transform its Sea Stallion helicopter squadron into an Osprey aircraft squadron a year later.

Then most recently, in May 2015, a MV-22 Osprey crashed during a training exercise at Bellows in Waimanalo, killing two Marines. An investigation revealed pilot performance and improper site survey were to blame.

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