Seven missing after Marine helicopter with 18 aboard crashes at sea

Thursday, December 9th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- A Marine Corps helicopter on a training mission over the Pacific with 18 people aboard crashed and quickly sank on Thursday, and 11 were plucked from the ocean, authorities said.

As the sun went down, a dozen Navy and Coast Guard ships and six helicopters were searching for seven people still missing. The CH-46 Sea Knight crashed at 1:16 p.m., 15 miles southwest of San Diego.

Those rescued were hospitalized in either stable or good condition.

Coast Guard Lt. Teddy Woolridge, a helicopter pilot, arrived at the scene about 15 minutes after the crash and saw nothing but a smoke flare and an air crew helmet floating in the water. The fact that there was no major debris field, he said, suggested that the Sea Knight quickly sank.

"Obviously, the more time that passes, the less hopeful the scenario," Woolridge said. "The water is very cold."

The search would go on through the night if necessary, officials said.

Weather in the area was good with light winds and waves and clear skies. The water temperature was about 59 degrees.

All the Marines had received water survival training, but it was unclear whether they had any special cold-water gear with them, said Marine Lt. Patricia Restrepo.

"What Marines do is inherently dangerous," she said. "We can only hope and pray that their training paid off."

Of the 11 plucked from the water, nine were in stable condition aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a helicopter assault ship, said Marine Lt. Joshua Smith. Two others were in good condition with minor injuries at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, Navy Lt. Doug Sayers said. He did not know the extent of their injuries.

Military officials were in the process of contacting the families of those involved.

The helicopter crashed after taking off from the Bonhomme Richard en route to the USS Pecos, a Navy oiler that provides fuel to ships at sea, Restrepo said.

All those aboard were from Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego and were part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. They were on a training mission to prepare for a six-month deployment in the Pacific, Restrepo said.

The twin-engine CH-46 was first introduced in 1964, and is a workhorse of the Marine Corps and Navy. It can carry a maximum of 14 troops in addition to the crew of four.

The Marines use the helicopter as an all-weather, day-or-night assault transport for troops and equipment.