HALEIWA, Hawaii (AP) — Rescuers battled waves up to 30 feet Saturday as they searched for 12 Marines who are missing after two helicopters crashed off the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
The waves dispersed the debris and complicated the search, which was expanded to include waters off Oahu’s west coast.
“It makes finding things incredibly difficult,” Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Scott Carr said.
Winds died down to about 10 mph, but the National Weather Service said a high surf warning would remain in effect through Sunday morning.
The Coast Guard was notified late Thursday of the crash by a civilian who saw the aircraft flying then disappear and a fireball. Someone else reported a flare in the sky, Carr said. It was not clear if the fireball and the flare were the same.
The Marines were alerted when the CH-53E helicopters carrying six crew members each failed to return to their base at Kaneohe Bay following a nighttime training mission. Hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter and C-130 airplane spotted debris 2 1/2 miles off of Oahu.
A Navy P-3 airplane was scouring the ocean, along with helicopters from the Coast Guard, Army, Navy and Honolulu police and fire departments. Two Navy warships and two Coast Guard cutters were on the scene. Honolulu lifeguards on personal watercraft were also looking.
The Coast Guard was keeping people out of a wide zone that spanned about 30 miles of shoreline, citing danger from debris. The zone extended from the shore to 8 miles off the coast.
National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Wroe said Saturday that the surf peaked Friday afternoon and was slowly declining.
A storm about 1,500 miles to the north and northwest of Oahu was sending large swells to the islands, he said.
The transport helicopters were part of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Known as Super Stallions, they are the U.S. military’s largest helicopter, capable of carrying a light armored vehicle, 16 tons of cargo or a team of combat-equipped Marines, according to a Marine Corps website.
The Coast Guard initially reported that the choppers had collided, but Marine Capt. Timothy Irish said Friday that he did not know if the accident was a collision.
The helicopters normally carry four crew members, but this particular flight also carried one or two instructor trainers, Irish said. He did not know if they were teaching the crew or just observing.
The family of Cpl. Christopher Orlando of Hingham, Massachusetts, said it was grateful for people’s prayers. “We continue to monitor the ongoing search effort in Hawaii and are thankful for the hard work of the many federal and local heroes undertaking this search and rescue mission,” the family said in a statement released by the Massachusetts State Police.
Ty Hart, a 21-year-old from Oregon, was in one of the helicopters, the Oregonian reported Friday night. The newspaper said Hart lives on base in Hawaii with his wife.
Hart’s former high school football coach and teacher, Alan Kirby, described Hart as a positive kid who always had a smile on his face and called him a quick learner on the gridiron.
The family of Capt. Kevin Roche believes he was one of the Marines aboard the helicopters.
“We believe the Marines and Coast Guard are doing everything they can to bring Kevin and his fellow Marines home safely, and we are grateful to everyone involved in the rescue,” said a family statement distributed by brother-in-law Anthony Kuenzel in St. Louis.
Associated Press writers Caleb Jones, Audrey McAvoy and Jennifer Kelleher in Honolulu, Greg Keller at Waimea Bay, Bob Lentz in Philadelphia, Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, and Lisa Baumann in Seattle contributed to this report.
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