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Marines Recount Copter Crash

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their first public comments, three Marines who survived a helicopter crash last week that killed six fellow Marines and a Navy corpsman recalled Thursday the “total chaos and mass confusion” as men desperately tried to claw their way out of a crowded and pitch-dark helicopter as it rapidly sank.

“For a second, I thought, ‘I don’t want to die this way,’ ” said Staff Sgt. Mark R. Schmidt, 29, part of an elite reconnaissance unit that was training for a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf.

Capt. Eric Kapitulik, 27, the platoon leader, said he blacked out momentarily as the helicopter hit the water upside down after it tumbled off the deck of the oiler Pecos.

“I remember waking up just in time; the helicopter was already about three-quarters filled with water,” he said. “I had enough time to get a gulp of air. . . . I remember going the wrong way, turning back around, beginning to claw past equipment, getting hooked on stuff. For some reason I looked up and saw light coming through the hellhole’ [the opening at the bottom of the helicopter], at which time I pulled myself up through that to the surface.”

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Kapitulik, who suffered a broken leg, said the only difference between the 11 Marines who survived and the seven men who were trapped inside was luck.

“We got out because we were lucky,” he said. “We weren’t knocked out when the helicopter hit the water. . . . I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m about to drown’ and then thinking for a second just that ‘I don’t want to die this way.’ ”

Staff Sgt. Michael S. Archer, 30, said his first thought when he got out of the helicopter, which sank in seconds, was, “I made it, I’m alive,” followed quickly by, “Where is everybody else?”

The crash occurred Dec. 9 as the crowded twin-rotor CH-46 Sea Knight approached the Pecos as part of an exercise in which Marines practice boarding a hostile ship on the high seas. Just above the deck, the rear landing gear of the helicopter became ensnared in the wire safety net that encircles the oiler, the Marines said Thursday.

The Sea Knight pilot, possibly unaware that the landing gear had been caught, tried to move higher in the air so the Marines could slide down a 30-foot rope extended through the hellhole to the ship’s deck.

But the nose of the helicopter began to point directly skyward and men and equipment inside began tumbling backward as the craft fell about 50 feet to the water.

“I thought, ‘God, please just let us sit here,’ ” Kapitulik said. “Then . . . in a flash the helo was off the deck of the ship--almost straight up and down.”

Schmidt said the inside of the helicopter “was so dark I couldn’t even see anybody’s face.”

The frantic scene was played out in near-total silence. The Marines and the corpsman were wearing earplugs to muffle the sound of the helicopter’s engines.

The 11 survivors were plucked from the water by crewmen of Special Warfare Command boats who had just delivered Navy SEALs to the Pecos.

A two-day search by the Navy and Coast Guard recovered only a small amount of debris. After 29 hours of searching, the Marine Corps declared the seven missing men lost at sea.

The Navy has not decided whether to attempt to retrieve the wreckage from 3,600 feet of water, but on Wednesday an unmanned underwater vehicle was able to pinpoint the wreckage site, which could be a precursor to a retrieval effort.

In an emotional scene on a knoll at sprawling Camp Pendleton, the three Marines who spoke Thursday were accompanied by the wives of four servicemen who died in the crash: Kathy Asis, wife of Navy Petty Officer Jay Asis; Holly Galloway, wife of Staff Sgt. David Galloway; Jean Baca, wife of Cpl. Mark Baca; and Julie Sabasteanski, wife of Staff Sgt. Vincent A. Sabasteanski.

Asis, in a strong voice, read a joint statement from the wives and other family members of the seven who died: “They were members of an elite group, a brotherhood of men dedicated to serving their country. We are comforted knowing they died doing what they love.”

Asked if the crash will make him reluctant to board another military helicopter, Kapitulik said, “What happened to us was an unfortunate accident. It’s not going to stop me, it’s not going to stop my men, because that would be disrespecting the men that we lost.”

Kapitulik, walking on crutches and looking somewhat haggard, said he met with the wives ofthe lost men Saturday night to console them. He asked that reporters not mention his broken leg.

“It’s just so insignificant compared to what the wives behind us lost that day,” he said.


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