Five Marines aboard the helicopter that went down in East County mountains amid a vicious winter storm this week died in the crash, military officials confirmed Thursday.
The crew and their CH-53E Super Stallion was last heard from around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday while flying from Creech Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, officials said. At the time, snow, rain and strong winds were pelting the aircraft’s last known location near Pine Valley.
“It is with a heavy heart and profound sadness that I share the loss of five outstanding Marines from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and the ‘Flying Tigers’ while conducting a training flight last night,” Maj. Gen. Michael J. Borgschulte, commanding general of 3rd MAW, said in a statement. “These pilots and crewmembers were serving a calling greater than self and were proud to do so. We will forever be grateful for their call to duty and selfless service.”
The Marines were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. They will not be publicly identified until 24 hours after next of kin have been notified.
“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’s statement read.
Little more has been said about the fatal crash, which is under investigation. Crews were working to recover the bodies as well as equipment, according to military officials Thursday.
Capt. Stephanie Leguizamon, spokesperson for the wing, told the Associated Press that she had little information beyond the statement, but noted that recovery efforts were being hampered by snowfall.
“I do know that it’s cold … I know that’s been a contentious issue” for searchers in reaching the crash site.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden also offered condolences, saying they were “heartbroken” over the deaths.
“As the Department of Defense continues to assess what occurred, we 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,” Biden said in the statement. “Our service members represent the very best of our nation — and these five Marines were no exception.”
The search began after Cal Fire San Diego received a report about 2:20 a.m. that the military helicopter was missing.
Crews on three fire engines and an ambulance headed toward the aircraft’s last known location, a mountainous area north of Interstate 8 and east of Kitchen Creek Road, near Fred Canyon, Cal Fire officials said.
“We made access to the coordinates, but it was snowing outside and difficult to access,” Cal Fire Capt. Mike Cornette said of the initial search. “We searched around different locations there and went as far as we could on different roads, but it was really snowy and wet and muddy.”
Fire crews called for more resources, and a consortium of agencies — from Border Patrol to the U.S. Forest Service to the sheriff’s Off-Road Enforcement Team — joined the search early Wednesday.
It’s still unclear exactly where the wreckage was located and when. Cornette said Thursday that fire crews had left the area by 9 or 10 a.m. Wednesday, and sheriff’s officials said they were released from the scene later in the day.
The CH-53E Super Stallion is a heavy-lift helicopter used to transport troops and equipment that also can fit on amphibious warfare ships.
In April 2018, four Miramar-based Marine helicopter crew members were killed when a CH-53 helicopter crashed about 15 miles west of El Centro during a training mission.
In that instance, the helicopter had flown out of the Marine base in Twentynine Palms to practice landings in unimproved zones. In 2020, families of the Marines who were killed sued the makers and manufacturers of aircraft parts.
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