Search and rescue operations off the Florida coast were continuing Wednesday afternoon after a U.S. military Black Hawk helicopter vanished during a routine training mission with seven Marines and four Army soldiers on board, the military said
Although human remains have washed ashore, Adjutant Gen. Glenn Curtiss of the Louisiana National Guard described the scene in a televised news conference as a “search and rescue operation until further notice.”
Curtiss said two helicopters took off in heavy fog on a mission based out of Elgin Air Force Base near Pensacola. One returned safely, but the other disappeared. He said experienced pilots were at the controls of the helicopters.
Fog had impeded the search and rescue mission at first with early efforts limited to boats and teams walking the shore, said Sara Vidoni, an Air Force spokeswoman.
The Marines were from the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, known as MARSOC, said Capt. Barry Morris, a MARSOC spokesman at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The others were from a Hammond, La.-based National Guard unit.
The helicopter, an Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk, disappeared over the Gulf of Mexico about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Debris was found about 2 a.m. Wednesday, said Andy Bourland, spokesman for the Air Force base.
If the Marines are confirmed dead, the Marine Corps will not release their names until 24 hours after their next of kin are notified, Morris said.
Vehicles from local law enforcement agencies were gathered Wednesday morning at the crash scene near a remote swath of beach between Pensacola and Destin. The beach is owned by the military and is used for test missions.
Word of the helicopter crash had already reached the Tight Cuts barbershop on the busy highway next to Camp Lejeune’s main gate, where owner Napoleon Kinsey was at work early Wednesday afternoon.
"Every time young Marines get killed, it really touches me,’’ said Kinsey, 48, who served four years in the Marine Corps before opening his shop 15 years ago. "I feel so bad. I always do.’’
Some of Kinsey’s regular customers are MARSOC Marines, and he said he hoped none of them had been on the doomed helicopter. He cut a MARSOC gunnery sergeant’s hair just the day before, he said.
Kinsey's customer, Roy Dickenson, said news of the accident touched him deeply. Dickenson said his son is a Marine master sergeant stationed at Camp Lejeune -- and a steady Tight Cuts customer the last 15 years.
Dickenson said he identified with the missing Marines, who were on a training mission, because his son was on a training exercise near Camp Lejeune on Wednesday morning.
"It’s really so sad,’’ said Dickenson, 67, a retired electrician. "But these guys have to train – they have to practice what they live.’’
Dexter Freeman, another Tight Cuts barber, said he has come to know many of his Marine customers quite well, including two who were later killed on overseas deployments.
"The risk they take is part of being in the military, but it still makes me so sad,’’ Freeman said. "When they tell me they’re going to be deployed, I always tell them I’m praying for them. I mean, so many of these guys are just kids - 19, 20 years old.’’
As Dickenson stood to leave after his haircut, he said he held out hope that the missing MARSOC Marines, with their special survival training, might somehow emerge alive. If not, he said, "there’ll be a lot of sorrowful people around here.’’
Jacksonsville is home to many Marine families who live off the base, and Camp Lejeune dominates this sprawling town of 70,000. Banners welcoming Marines home from deployments are often hung from fences around the base. For more than a decade, people here have endured regular announcements of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It never gets easier, Dickenson said. "We’re hoping for the best,’’ he said. "All we can do now is hope.’’