A Blackhawk helicopter that went down off the coast of Florida on Tuesday evening has been found and many of the 11 crew members from the Louisiana National Guard's 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion based out of Hammond, Louisiana have been identified, but recovery of the aircraft has been hampered by fog and bad weather.
The operation that started out Wednesday morning as a rescue mission that stretched across 94 square miles of the shoreline off of Florida's panhandle and has been going on for over 36 hours has now been changed to a recovery mission as all but two of those crew members have been found. There are not expected to be any survivors.
"The entire military community mourns the loss of our friends that we consider family," said Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard. "We are heartbroken. We are shocked. But we are a team - standing together for the families and for each other."
Nine of the 11 men have been positively identified and their families have been contacted, but the names of only five have been released by family. Those five include:
- Marine Marcus Bawol, 27, of Warren, Mich., "loved everything about the military," said his sister, Brandy Peek. He had planned to marry his fiancée, Erika Lynn Hipple, on Oct. 17. On Thursday, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts ordered flags in the city, just north of Detroit, flown at half staff.
- Marine Trevor Blaylock of Lake Orion, Mich., had a wife and two daughters, according to WDIV-TV, Detroit.
- Marine Kerry Kemp of Port Washington, Wis., had a daughter just shy of her first birthday, said his sister-in-law, Lora Waraksa of Port Washington. He met his wife, Jenna Kemp, in high school and loved taking his nephews out to hunt for sea shells.
- Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif of Holland, Mich., was awarded the Silver Star, the Marine Corps third highest award for valor, this past Friday. Two Marines at his family's home Thursday said Seif's status is unknown, according to the Holland (Mich.) Sentinel.
- Pilot David Strother of Pineville, La., a Guardsman who was of two pilots on the helicopter, had served overseas tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said Pastor Darryl Hoychick of Trinity Baptist Church in Pineville, a longtime family friend. "My heart breaks," he said. "They're just excellent people, down-to-earth people, trustworthy people, the kind of people you want as neighbors."
The names of the remaining crew members are expected to be released officially through the Coast Guard once the recovery concludes. Unfortunately, due to the weather, the recovery efforts have been suspended until further notice, but the two remaining crew members' bodies are expected to still be in the helicopter's wreckage.
While a cause for the crash has not been identified just yet, officials believe that it had to do with the foggy weather conditions that also caused a second helipter on the same mission to turn back to shore.
The crew of the helicopter was part of a unit that had already served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they also led several humanitarian missions in and around the Gulf Coast, including relief during Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the BP oil spill.
Several prayer vigils are being held in honor of the fallen soldiers and airmen, and the families ask for continued prayers in this difficult time.