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5 Marines confirmed dead in helicopter crash

A Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter
Shown is a file image of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, the same type that was reported overdue at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego early Wednesday.
(U.S. Navy)
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Five Marines died when a military helicopter crashed en route to a Marine air station in San Diego, officials said Thursday.

“It is with a heavy heart and profound sadness that I share the loss of five outstanding Marines from 3d Marine Aircraft Wing and the ‘Flying Tigers,’ ” Maj. Gen. Michael J. Borgschulte, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said in a statement.

For the record:

6:37 a.m. Feb. 8, 2024The headline on a previous version of this story said that the bodies of the dead Marines had been recovered. Authorities have not yet confirmed that the recovery efforts have been completed.

“To the families of our fallen Marines, we send our deepest condolences and commit to ensuring your support and care during this incredibly difficult time,” Borgschulte said. “Though we understand the inherent risks of military service, any loss of life is always difficult.”

The helicopter was found just after 9 a.m. in Pine Valley, about 40 miles east of San Diego, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing announced in a news release.

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Those aboard the flight were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, according to a statement from the Marine Corps’ 3rd Aircraft Wing. The crew was aboard a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, which was reported overdue after leaving Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev., on Tuesday. The helicopter was en route to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.

The helicopter was flying into treacherous weather in California, which had been inundated with three days of relentless rain.

In a statement, President Biden said he and First Lady Jill Biden “extend our deepest condolences to their families, their squadron, and the U.S. Marine Corps as we grieve the loss of five of our nation’s finest warriors.” He also thanked the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary-Civil Air Patrol, and other federal, state and local agencies for helping in the search and recovery efforts.

“Our service members represent the very best of our nation — and these five Marines were no exception,” Biden said. “Today, as we mourn this profound loss, we honor their selfless service and ultimate sacrifice — and reaffirm the sacred obligation we bear to all those who wear the uniform and their families.”

The Marines said an investigation into the crash is underway and they are currently attempting to recover equipment and the remains of the pilots and crew members. The names of those killed will not be released until 24 hours after next of kin are notified, officials said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection received word about the missing helicopter at 2:20 a.m. The last known contact with the crew was at 11:30 p.m., according to Cal Fire San Diego Capt. Mike Cornette.

Firefighters and paramedics were provided a set of coordinates by the Marine Corps in Lake Morena, a remote area in the Cleveland National Forest. The search efforts were hampered by “heavy snow and muddy terrain,” Cornette said.

The U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the Civil Air Patrol assisted in the search.

Overnight, visibility in the area was poor because of snow, rain and gusty winds, according to meteorologist Philip Gonsalves with the National Weather Service in San Diego. Those conditions would have been in play for most of the night and into the morning, Gonsalves said.

“Those conditions are still going to be bad right now,” he added.

The helicopter was initially reported missing north of Interstate 8, southeast of Pine Valley, a remote mountain community. The terrain where firefighters were instructed to search was covered in snow, making it difficult for them to continue on foot, according to Cal Fire.

The region is within the Cleveland National Forest, which spans 720 square miles across San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties. The helicopter was discovered in Pine Valley, which is nestled in the Cuyamaca Mountains, according to officials.

In 2018, four Marines died in a helicopter crash 15 miles west of El Centro. The crew flew out of a base in Twentynine Palms as part of a training exercise on April 3 on the same heavy-lift helicopter that was reported missing on Tuesday, according to a news release from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

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Two years after the crash, the families of the four Marines sued the manufacturers who supplied parts to the military. A Marine Corps investigation into the crash ruled out pilot error and pointed to a bypass valve as the root cause of the crash, the news outlet Marine Corps Times reported when the lawsuit was filed.

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