The Louisiana National Guard on Thursday confirmed search crews recovered the bodies of two soldiers killed in a Tuesday night helicopter crash during a training exercise off the coast of Florida.
The National Guard said it believes the two other soldiers still missing are inside the wrecked Black Hawk helicopter, believed to be in 25 feet of water in the Santa Rosa Sound near Pensacola, according to a Guard statement released Thursday.
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce that two of our own have perished in this tragic accident. ... We believe the other two remain with the aircraft,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.
The announcement came on the heels of the U.S. Air Force saying the search and rescue mission was transitioning to one of salvage and recovery.
The helicopter was carrying the four guardsmen based out of Hammond and seven Marines when it went down.
Divers found the Black Hawk helicopter, but bad weather Thursday prevented the recovery of the aircraft’s flight recorder.
“At this point, we are not hopeful for survivors,” said Air Force Col. Monte Cannon during a Thursday morning news conference.
The wreck likely was a high-impact crash that caused the helicopter to break into several pieces when it struck the water, said Cannon, vice commander of the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, where the helicopter launched.
Authorities have said two Louisiana National Guard helicopters left the base to perform amphibious operations with Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. One craft turned around, apparently due to poor weather, and safely returned to Eglin. The other was reported missing about 8:30 p.m., and search teams first found debris about 2 a.m. Wednesday.
The military is withholding the names of the crash victims, though friends and family on Thursday began naming some, including Pineville native and guardsman David Strother.
News of his involvement in the crash reached Pineville High School Principal Karl Carpenter on Wednesday.
“We’re just heartbroken here to hear that news,” he said.
Strother graduated from the high school in 1989, and his son is a 2009 graduate. The principal said the family was “very active … very involved in school activities.”
He remembered seeing Strother at his son’s football games and said the news of his death has cast a pall over the Rapides Parish community.
“Obviously we’re very saddened. Our hearts go out to the family and our prayers as well,” Carpenter said.
Wednesday night, a large crowd gathered in the fog at a pier near Eglin and held a tearful memorial, offering songs and prayers for the helicopter crew.
“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,” a tearful Dolly Edwards, herself the wife of a Marine, said at the vigil.
Homeowners in the area have reported finding debris from the helicopter and pieces of clothing that had washed ashore, authorities said.
The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search and rescue mission at 12:48 p.m. Thursday after a 36-hour operation that covered a total area of just under 100 square miles.
A civilian salvage crew was expected to arrive in the area sometime Thursday, Coast Guard Lt. Lily Zepeda said that afternoon. The Coast Guard was working with the Army and the salvage crew to determine how to safely bring up the helicopter. Currents, tides and persistent fog are all expected to affect their salvage attempt.
“Fog is a big factor,” Zepeda said.
It is not clear when teams will be able to recover the aircraft, and weather may affect the time needed.
“It was certainly a high-impact crash,” said Eglin Fire Chief Mark Giuliano, and “very, very, very dense fog” still complicates recovery efforts.
In a news release, the National Guard said it would not be able to confirm the two missing soldiers are still within the helicopter wreckage until the aircraft is brought to the surface.
“At times like these, words seem to offer little comfort. We are heartbroken. We are shocked. But we are a team … standing together for the families and for each other,” the National Guard wrote in a news release Thursday.
The guardsmen in the crash were assigned to the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion, also known as Task Force Voodoo. The National Guard has made frequent reference to their ties to the community and the unit’s commitment to their families.
Just a few weeks ago, the National Guard posted a video to YouTube showing the battalion taking their spouses up in a UH-60 Black Hawk, the same type of craft involved in the crash.
The unit has twice deployed to Iraq and participated in emergency operations during hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Isaac, as well as other disasters.
The Fort Rucker Safety Center in Alabama has been called in to investigate the crash. The cause has not been determined.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.