TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A salvage barge moved off the Florida Panhandle coast to lift the wreckage of a shattered Black Hawk helicopter from the waters, days after seven Marines and four soldiers were killed when the aircraft crashed in dense fog on a nighttime training mission.
Air Force spokeswoman Sara Vidoni said the barge arrived about midday Friday to pluck the debris from about 25 feet of water. The salvage operation opened on a day a military leader in North Carolina disclosed that those aboard the aircraft had tried to abort their mission when they decided it was too risky.
Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman — commander of Marine Corps special operations forces — said the Marines had been flying offshore before early Tuesday’s crash to practice rappelling down ropes into the water and then making for land. He didn’t know whether the Marines had been planning to reach shore by swimming or in small rubber boats, but the same drill had been practiced in daylight.
“They literally had done it hours before in daylight as part of the rehearsal for being able to do the nighttime operations, which inherently are more difficult,” Osterman said at a news conference at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The teams of Marines and Army-piloted choppers made a judgment call on whether conditions were sufficient for the training mission to go ahead, he noted. Then when they were heading out to start the mission, they tried to abort after deciding it was too risky, Osterman said.
The seven Marines were members of the same team who constantly trained and faced danger together as part of the Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, which totals about 2,500 troops. Among those killed was 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif, who had been awarded one of the military’s highest honors for heroism only days earlier. He had been commended for his efforts to save a mortally wounded friend in heavy gunfire in Afghanistan.
Another victim was 27-year-old Marcus Bawol, 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.
Jenna Kemp’s husband, Kerry Kemp, 27, also 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.
The other Marine victims were identified as: Capt. Stanford H. Shaw, III, 31, from Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, from Williamsburg, Virginia; Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29, from Lake Orion, Michigan and Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn, 33, from Queens, New York.
Four National Guard soldiers from Louisiana also were killed, though they’ve not yet been publicly identified. The National Guard soldiers, from Hammond, Louisiana, each did two tours in Iraq and joined in humanitarian missions after Gulf Coast hurricanes and the 2010 BP oil spill off Louisiana.
Around noon Friday, the salvage barge arrived at the crash site, Vidoni said. The Air Force spokeswoman said the crews hoped to complete their work Friday night. She had no immediate report on their progress by early Saturday. A news photograph appeared to show debris being lifted onto a barge Friday.
The cause of the crash — which was 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.