By David Zucchino and W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Human remains have washed ashore along the Florida coastline after a U.S. military Black Hawk helicopter vanished during a routine training mission Tuesday night with seven Marines and four Army soldiers on board, the military said.
Local law enforcement, the Coast Guard and military members from Eglin Air Force base outside Pensacola, where the helicopter’s flight originated, have been searching for debris since the helicopter was reported missing, said Sara Vidoni, an Air Force spokeswoman at the base.
“Fog impeded the search mission this morning, but it is beginning to dissipate,” she said, adding that the search efforts had been limited to boats and teams walking the shore because of the fog.
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 soldiers were from a Hammond, La.-based National Guard unit, The Associated Press reported.
The helicopter, an Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk, went missing over the Gulf of Mexico about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Search and rescue crews found debris around 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.
“Our focus now is on the search,” Morris said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.”
Bourland said the helicopter took off from a nearby airport in Destin and joined other military aircraft in the training exercise.
Much of the area was enveloped in fog from Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning, Katie Moore with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee told the AP. Much of that time, visibility was at two miles or less, she 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 barber shop 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.”
Zucchino reported from North Carolina and Hennigan from Washington.
Photo: A UH60 Black Hawk helicopter operated by the 82nd Airborne Division Combat Aviation Brigade takes off from the 82nd Airborne Division parade ground on May 5, 2013 (Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod/Wikimedia Commons)