Calif. searchers scour seas 2 days after air crash
November 1, 2009
SAN DIEGO (AP) – Crews will search the Pacific’s chilly waters overnight for nine people lost two days ago when a Marine Corps helicopter and a U.S. Coast Guard plane crashed in midair, though hope of finding survivors fades with each hour, a top Coast Guard commander said Saturday.
Rear Adm. Joseph Castillo said at a late afternoon news conference that there was still a chance of survivors among the seven military personnel aboard the Coast Guard C-130 and the two in the Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter, despite water temps in the low 60s, because all had access to heat-retaining drysuits and were in excellent physical shape.
A Pentagon official said a day earlier that the crash likely killed all aboard. But Castillo said the search was ongoing. “We don’t ever want to suspend the case prematurely, when there may be someone out there. … But hope gets less every day. My hope today is not what it was yesterday.”
The two aircraft collided at 7:10 p.m. Thursday as the Coast Guard was conducting a search operation for a missing boater. The Marine helicopter was flying in formation with another Cobra escort helicopter and two large troops transports en route to San Clemente Island, 50 miles off the coast, for a nighttime training exercise.
Families of the missing said they were grateful rescuers weren’t giving up.
Jennifer Wiegandt Seidman said she holds out hope that her husband, Chief Petty Officer John Seidman, has managed to survive. Seidman is a flight engineer with a 23-year career in the Coast Guard.
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“I don’t want to let my mind go to thinking the worst,” she said from the couple’s home in Carmichael, Calif. “John knows what he’s doing, and he’s fit and he’s very smart. They’re saying that they’re still looking.”
The Seidmans married in 2001 and Seidman, 43, is stepfather to her three children, aged 10, 12 and 13, she said.
Castillo said Saturday the search for the missing boatman, David Jines, will be called off if he is not found by day’s end. Jines, 50, was reported missing by a friend and was last seen in a 12-foot motorized skiff.
Six Coast Guard cutters and three helicopters hunted for any survivors of the midair collision. Crews scanning a 644-square-mile patch of ocean in waters about 2,000 feet deep found debris from both aircraft, but there was no sign of the crew members or their bodies.
“These are all military personnel. They’re trained in survival tactics, they’re trained also with the will to live,” Castillo said. “We know they have the ability to survive longer than you might expect.”
Castillo said rescuers are factoring in the military members’ physical fitness in the decision to keep searching. The air crews would have had the dry suits with them, but it was unclear if they had them on when they crashed.
All seven aboard the Coast Guard plane are stationed at the Coast Guard Air Station in Sacramento, Calif., where their aircraft was based.
The aircraft commander, Lt. Cmdr. Che Barnes, 35, is from Capay, Calif. His co-pilot, Lt. Adam Bryant, 28, is from Crewe, Va.
Bryant’s mother, Nina Bryant, also of Crewe, said Saturday that all she had been told was that “they’re searching and haven’t found anyone yet, and they don’t know whose fault it was.” She said she is “hoping and praying” her son and the others will be found alive.
“You never know. Miracles happen,” she said.
The missing crew members from the Marine helicopter are Maj. Samuel Leigh, 35, of Belgrade, Maine, and 1st Lt. Thomas Claiborne, 26, of Parker, Colo.
Leigh’s father, David, said his son, who was not married, was based in San Diego and was focused on a military career “since age 3.” Leigh went to Norwich University, a military school in Vermont, and joined the Marines right after graduation in 1996.
“He wasn’t mechanically inclined, so we were particularly proud of him, because he had to master an awful lot,” said David Leigh, who lives in Belgrade.
The family last spoke to their son Wednesday by phone. He told them he would be night-flying the following evening.
The accident happened in airspace uncontrolled by the FAA and inside a so-called military warning area, which is at times open to civilian aircraft and at times closed for military use, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said. He did not know the status of the airspace at the time of the crash.
Minutes before the collision, the FAA told the C-130 pilot to begin communicating with military controllers at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego Bay, but it was not known if the pilot did so, Gregor said.
On Saturday, a top Coast Guard official said he believed the C-130 pilot had spoken with the military controllers before the accident.
Accident investigators who began arriving in San Diego on Saturday would review communications between the pilots and between the pilots and the FAA and military controllers, said Capt. Tom Farris, commander of the Coast Guard’s 11th District.
Investigators are also collecting witness statements from those aboard the three other Marine aircraft and will check to see if any distress calls were made.
Contributing were Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles, Larry O’Dell in Richmond, Va., Dan Elliott in Denver, and Kathy McCormack in Concord, N.H.