NAVARRE, Fla. (AP) — Grieving families and comrades of 11 soldiers and Marines whose Black Hawk helicopter slammed into the water during a training exercise can only wait until the dense fog clears and rough seas calm enough for their bodies to be recovered from the wreckage, which settled in just 25 feet of water.
The Army said it has recovered the bodies of two of the four soldiers from the Louisiana Army National Guard helicopter. The search continued for the remains of others on the helicopter.
The helicopter went down in thick fog Tuesday night during a routine training mission at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. The cause of the crash — described as “high impact” by Eglin Fire Chief Mark Giuliano — is being probed by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center out of Fort Rucker, Alabama.
Military officials said they need better weather before they can pull the UH-60’s shattered core from the bottom of Santa Rosa Sound.
Jenna Kemp’s husband, Kerry Kemp, was among the Marines killed. He was a “proud Marine, a loving husband and most wonderful father,” with a child about to turn 1, said her sister, 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 them his remains had been identified. Bawol “loved everything about the military,” Peek said.
The tragedy struck hard in the beach towns near the Eglin Air Force Base and Pensacola Naval Air Station, where families often come to relax between difficult deployments.
“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 a community vigil Wednesday night.
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 passengers were “seasoned combat veterans” with the 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion, said Capt. Barry Morris, a command spokesman at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The bad news has arrived in stages to Hammond, where a chilly drizzle and flags at half-staff cast a dark tone on the town, also home to Southeastern Louisiana University. First the chopper was missing, then they learned that four Louisiana soldiers were on board. Thursday, they learned that two of the bodies remain submerged with the wreckage.
“The thing is, yesterday, you kind of had a little hope,” Rickie Brocato, owner of the Crescent Bar. “Today there’s really no hope.”
Brocato’s bar is a regular haunt for members of the lost men’s unit. They even donated an American flag that once flew over their barracks in Iraq. He was bracing for more bad news.
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill contributed from Hammond, Louisiana.