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Search for Chopper Crash Victims Halted : Accident: Two San Diego men still missing despite intense 27-hour scan by air and sea. Investigators decline to speculate how the two Marine helicopters apparently collided over the ocean off Dana Point.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday called off its search for two San Diego men missing after two U.S. Marine Corps helicopters apparently crashed in the air over the ocean off Dana Point.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Brenda Toledo said the search for the two men was indefinitely suspended about 7:45 p.m. after 27 hours of scanning more than 100 square miles of ocean by aircraft and boats.

Four Marines were rescued after the accident Monday.

The apparent collision occurred in clear weather and while the two helicopters were in radio contact with each other, authorities said.

The Marine Corps declined to comment Tuesday on what may have caused the crash, but disclosed that one of the two missing men is a civilian, Joe Towers, a free-lance photojournalist and Navy Reserve captain who was taking pictures of the flight.

The other missing man was identified as Marine Capt. Brent MacBain, 31, who piloted the Huey helicopter in which Towers was riding. MacBain is single and from Los Alamos, N.M., but currently living in San Diego, said a Marine spokesman.

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While two U.S. Coast Guard ships Tuesday searched for the lost men 16 miles offshore throughout the night, they were joined by a Navy vessel at daybreak Tuesday and a pair of Marine helicopters that searched the ocean for clues about the accident.

Marine spokeswoman Capt. Betsy Sweatt described the crash as an “apparent mid-air collision” but couldn’t state whether the helicopters actually collided or came too close and clipped rotors.

“I don’t know what actually took place,” Sweatt said. “This is an investigation that could take 30 days and will involve pulling up two helicopters from the bottom of the ocean.”

Sweatt said the UH-1N Huey and an AH-1W Super Cobra based at Camp Pendleton and belonging to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 at El Toro air station were flying together about 200 feet above the ocean and were in radio contact.

The four crash survivors, recuperating from minor injuries, have offered little information about the incident, said Marine Master Sgt. Don Long.

“The first thing they knew, they were in the water,” Long said. “Hopefully, our investigation will determine what happened. It’s just too hard to speculate.”

The helicopters dropped “like a rock” into the ocean and then sunk another 50 to 100 feet before the survivors could free themselves and resurface, said Dr. Thomas Shaver, a trauma unit surgeon at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.

One survivor told Shaver he saw the other helicopter going down as he surfaced.

“It’s an incredible event these men survived,” Shaver said.

The key to surviving a crash at sea is being able to escape from the helicopter cockpit. The crew is equipped with oxygen and inflatable life vests for such emergencies, Sweatt said.

“We are an amphibious force,” Sweatt said, adding that crews are trained “extensively” in surviving offshore crashes. “We fly over water all the time. This is something we are prepared to deal with.”

Two of the men rescued by a fishing boat, 1st Lt. Steven Picot, 29, from Westchester, N.Y., currently living in Carlsbad, and 1st Lt. Scott Hanford, 25, from Tonawanda, N.Y., currently living in Oceanside, suffered only cuts and bruises and were sent home Tuesday.

Picot was the pilot of the AH-1W Super Cobra, and Hanford was his co-pilot.

Hanford, reached at his home Tuesday, declined to discuss the accident.

“I can’t say anything about the incident,” he said.

The other survivors were identified as Capt. James McAllister, 31, of Oceanside, the Huey co-pilot, and Sgt. Vincent Hinojosa, 23, of Oceanside, a crew chief on the UH-1N Huey helicopter.

Hinojosa was the most seriously injured crewman and remains hospitalized with small fractures of his back.

All four men were plucked from the ocean by a commercial sword-fishing vessel, the 56-foot, San Diego-based De Brum. Skipper Steve Brown said he and a crewman were about 15 miles southeast of Catalina Island when they saw two smoke flares.

Brown, 32, of San Diego, said he headed toward the flares and began to see debris and an oil slick scattered on the water. He said he found two helmets and a camera bag with about “four or five rolls of film inside.”

A Marine spokesman confirmed that the film had been found and would be reviewed in the crash investigation.

Towers was granted permission to ride along on the Huey helicopter to take pictures of the Cobra helicopter in flight. Camp Pendleton spokesman Chief Warrant Officer Mike Hedlund said Towers had published photographs for numerous aviation and military magazines.

Both helicopters, designed for combat, have been involved in several fatal crashes. Most recently, in August, 1992, the two-man crew of an AH-1W Cobra was killed while conducting a routine training exercise near the Kuwait-Iraq border.

In October, 1991, four Camp Pendleton Marines were killed when a Huey apparently broke apart and crashed near the Salton Sea during a training flight.


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