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Salvage Effort Set to Resume at Marine Aircraft Crash Site

The USNS Salvor (T-ARS 52) conducting underwater searches in the last known position of two Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters off the North Shore of Oahu, Jan. 18, 2016. (Photo: Air Station Barbers Point)
The USNS Salvor (T-ARS 52) conducting underwater searches in the last known position of two Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters off the North Shore of Oahu, Jan. 18, 2016. (Photo: Air Station Barbers Point)

The North Shore's notoriously high winter seas continue to hamper a Navy and Marine Corps effort to recover two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and 12 Marines who perished when the big choppers crashed at sea the night of Jan. 14.

The Navy recovery ship USNS Salvor, with a remotely operated vehicle aboard, headed out to the crash site about 2 miles off Waimea Bay on Feb. 12 but was "forced to return to port due to the sea state approximately two weeks ago," Marine Corps spokesman 1st Lt. George McArthur said.

McArthur, who is with the III Marine Expeditionary Force/Marine Corps Installations Pacific out of Okinawa, Japan, said in an email late Monday that the 255-foot Salvor was expected to resume operations within 24 hours.

"Recovery operations are currently on pause due to the sea state and maintenance, which limit the ability of the USNS Salvor to remain on station and to allow for safe remotely operated vehicle operations," he said.

Search and rescue operations turned into recovery and salvage Jan. 19. The status of the Marines changed to "deceased" Jan. 20 after five full days of searching.

The need for deep-diving equipment from the mainland and the rough seas delayed recovery and salvage operations until Feb. 12, the Marine Corps previously said.

Since then "some of the wreckage" has been recovered, McArthur said Monday. He said that "elements of remains" have been recovered.

"The families of the recovered remains have been informed," he said. "We will not go into further details at this time, out of respect for the families."

Recovery work still remains to ensure that the military's aviation accident board has all it requires to conduct a thorough investigation into the accident, McArthur said.

The remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, is being used to locate and recover wreckage because of the depth of the debris field, which he said is primarily deeper than 300 feet.

Twelve Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 and Marine Aircraft Group 24 at Kaneohe Bay went down in the two choppers during routine flight training. Witnesses reported seeing a fireball at sea. No mayday call for help was made.

The size of the debris field is several square miles at varying depths greater than 300 feet, the Marine Corps previously said.

The Marine Corps said Feb. 2 that none of the 12 Marines had been recovered. Capt. Cassandra Gesecki, a spokeswoman for the III Marine Expeditionary Force, said at the time that "trace elements of remains, in the form of DNA, were recovered during the search and rescue phase that ended on 19 Jan."

The Navy Personnel Command said Navy divers perform ocean, harbor and combat/expeditionary salvage operations in up to 300 feet of water. The Salvor has a crane that could pull the aircraft out of the water, said the ship's operator, the Navy's Military Sealift Command.

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