NAVARRE, Fla. – Divers have found the wreckage of a military helicopter in just 25 feet of water after it crashed in dense fog during a Florida training mission, killing seven elite Marines and four experienced soldiers. But more bad weather Thursday delayed the recovery of bodies and the flight recorder.
The mission changed from rescue to recovery after divers inspected the shattered core of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, said Col. Monte Cannon, vice-commander of the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base.
"It was certainly a high-impact crash," said Eglin Fire Chief Mark Giuliano, and "very, very, very dense fog" was complicating the response. There's almost no visibility at the spot where the wreckage was found, forcing search crews to move slowly to avoid colliding with each other, and the surf is too rough still to pull the wreckage to the surface.
Dozens of airmen walked the shores of Santa Rosa Sound Thursday, recovering pieces of clothing and bits of wreckage, but the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search Thursday afternoon, and will instead focus on helping the Army recover the remaining fuselage and debris, it said.
Two of the soldiers' bodies were recovered, but two others were believed to remain inside the wreckage, said Maj. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana Army National Guard, which flew the helicopter. The Marines were with the Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The military has not identified those killed, but some family members have confirmed the deaths.
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 National Guard soldiers, from Hammond, Louisiana, each did two tours in Iraq, and joined in humanitarian missions after Gulf Coast hurricanes and the BP oil spill, their commanders said.
All the Marines were "seasoned combat veterans" who did tours in Iraq before joining the 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion in Afghanistan, where they were training local military and police, said Capt. Barry Morris, spokesman for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
These "unconventional warriors" train constantly 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. Their practice Tuesday involved "insertion and extraction missions," using small boats and helicopters to move in and out of a target site.
President Barack Obama has promised a thorough investigation into the cause, which is being led by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center out of Fort Rucker, Alabama.
The helicopter went down Tuesday night in fog so thick that another helicopter turned back. A woman at campground nearby, Kim Urr, said she heard a metallic sound and then two muffled explosions as it disappeared into the narrow waterway separating Santa Rosa Island from the Florida panhandle mainland.
This dense sea fog, which could persist through Friday, is common when warm southern air meets cold water this time of year, said Jack Cullen, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Mobile, Alabama.
The same fog enveloped a large gathering holding a vigil on a pier Wednesday night. Crashing Gulf waves created a somber backdrop to the songs, tears and prayers of the people, who have strong ties to the military and the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base.
"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," said a tearful Dolly Edwards, herself the wife of a Marine.
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