HONOLULU — The ongoing search for 12 Marines who are missing after two helicopters crashed off Hawaii entered the third day with no plans Sunday morning to call off or suspend the massive effort, the Coast Guard said.
While high surf complicated the mission for rescuers on the water, a green laser off Haleiwa Beach Park on Saturday night struck a Coast Guard plane, forcing crew members to alter search patterns.
“It’s a very, very dangerous thing,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Tara Molle said of the laser, adding that it can be life-threatening for crews flying at night.
Rescuers have been searching around the clock since the Coast Guard was notified late Thursday of the crash by a civilian who saw the aircraft flying and then disappear and a fireball.
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.
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.
“We think they collided because both of them went down,” Mario Vittone, a retired Coast Guardsman who is an expert on sea survival, said Sunday from Florida.
It would have happened very quickly and survival would entail overcoming many factors. “You have to survive the crash, you have to survive the on-rushing of water,” he said, adding they would then have to battle dehydration and exposure to the elements.
A high surf warning for Oahu’s north and west shores was extended until noon Sunday. Waves of up to 30 feet were expected to subside to advisory levels Sunday afternoon.
It’s difficult to spot anything in breaking waves, said Vittone, who was a helicopter swimmer and marine accident investigator with the Coast Guard. “It almost like camouflages everything.”
The crash was off the north shore, but the search area was expanded to include waters off Oahu’s west coast on Saturday.
Expanding the search area lowers the probability of detection, Vittone said.
The Coast Guard uses what’s called the Probability of Survival Decision Aid to gauge survival time he said, explaining that they factor in air temperature, water temperature, sea conditions and humidity, along with details about the victims.
“They use age and weight and sex and what they were wearing, along what gear they have on,” Vittone said.
Rescuers will continue to search “as long as there’s probable cause that they have something to find,” Molle, with the Coast Guard in Honolulu, said. As of Sunday morning, there were no plans to call off or suspend the search, she said.
The U.S. Marines Corps released the names of the 12 missing crew members late Saturday. Though based in Hawaii, the Marines were from various states.
Some family members were holding out hope that survivors could be found, while asking for privacy as they waited for updates.
“My husband and I want everyone to know that this is not about us,” Donna McGrew, mother of Maj. Shawn Campbell of College Station, Texas, said in a statement. “This is about the families that are suffering, and about all the sacrifices that our military members and their families make on a daily basis.”
BY AUDREY McAVOY and JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER, Associated Press