Officials end search for missing helicopter crew in Hawaii

A massive ocean search for five soldiers who disappeared after a nighttime helicopter crash last week ended August 21 after no signs of life were spotted among the debris.

Crews from the Army, Coast Guard, Navy, and local agencies in Hawaii searched around the clock as strong currents moved the wreckage into a deep-water search area that spanned 72,000 nautical miles (115,873 kilometers).

“Our five soldiers who represent the best and the brightest of America have not been found,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commander of the 25th Infantry Division.

The Army identified the missing soldiers as 1st Lt. Kathryn M. Bailey, 26, of Hope Mills, North Carolina; Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brian M. Woeber, 41, of Decatur, Alabama; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stephen T. Cantrell, 32, of Wichita Falls, Texas; Staff Sgt.Abigail R. Milam, 33, of Jenkins, Kentucky; and Sgt. Michael L. Nelson, 30, of Antioch, Tennessee.

An aircrewman aboard a Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Barbers Point scans the waters off Oahu Aug. 18, 2017, for any sign of five missing aviators from an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. USCG photo by Air Station Barbers Point.

An aircrewman aboard a Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Barbers Point scans the waters off Oahu Aug. 18, 2017, for any sign of five missing aviators from an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. USCG photo by Air Station Barbers Point.

Army and Coast Guard officials on August 21 notified the families of the missing soldiers that they were ending the search and rescue operation, Cavoli said.

“It is a very, very difficult decision, and it weighs heavily, particularly on the hearts of the Coast Guard,” said Rear Adm. Vincent B. Atkins, commander of the US Coast Guard’s 14th District.

“We used all of our training and professionalism in this very dynamic environment to mount the best response possible,” Atkins added.

There has been no determination yet of the crash’s cause, Cavoli said after the search was suspended.

Two Black Hawk helicopter crews were conducting training off the western tip of Oahu the night of August 15 when one aircrew lost contact with the crew whose helicopter went missing.

A 45-foot Response Boat-Medium boatcrew from Coast Guard Station Honolulu are shown conducting a search for five crewmembers aboard a downed Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter approximately two miles west of Ka’ena Point, Oahu. Photo from USCG.

A 45-foot Response Boat-Medium boatcrew from Coast Guard Station Honolulu are shown conducting a search for five crewmembers aboard a downed Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter approximately two miles west of Ka’ena Point, Oahu. Photo from USCG.

When the pilot on the lead helicopter realized the other aircraft was missing, he immediately turned his helicopter around and began to search, Cavoli said. But he later determined he didn’t have the equipment he needed to launch a professional search so he alerted the Coast Guard, Cavoli said.

A multi-agency team searched more than 72,000 nautical miles (115,873 kilometers) over the last week but saw no signs of life or of the crew that went missing. They found what appeared to be pieces of helicopter fuselage and a helmet in a debris field that expanded with strong currents to remote, deep areas of the ocean.

The Navy brought in remotely operated underwater vehicles and sonar to help in the search and get a better picture of the ocean floor, which drops quickly off the coast of Oahu and is over 1,000 feet (305 meters) deep in parts of the search area.

During the search, the Army and Coast Guard held joint briefings with family members every six hours to keep them informed, Cavoli said.

An aircrewman aboard a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Barbers Point scans the waters off Oahu Aug. 18, 2017, for any sign of five missing aviators from an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. USCG photo by Air Station Barbers Point.

An aircrewman aboard a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Barbers Point scans the waters off Oahu Aug. 18, 2017, for any sign of five missing aviators from an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. USCG photo by Air Station Barbers Point.

The fact that parts of the fuselage were found indicated the helicopter’s impact with the ocean was substantial, said Mario Vittone, a retired Coast Guardsman and expert on sea survival.

“There’s not a big record of people surviving impacts with the water when the impact is so significant that the fuselage is torn apart,” he said.

People can last about three days without water as long as they are not working very hard, but in the ocean it is difficult to get rest while trying to survive, Vittone said.

All five crew members on board had life vests, air bottles for underwater breathing, and radios with built-in GPS systems, the Army has said.

“All these things lead you to believe they didn’t leave the aircraft, because if they could get out of the aircraft and inflate their floatation devices, then why would they not then turn on their beacons?” Vittone said.

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