All four life rafts from the two choppers that collided off Oahu’s North Shore have been recovered, but rescuers have yet to find any sign of survivors. The search for the 12 Marines on board the two helicopters continued into its fifth day Tuesday, with Marines combing North Shore beaches for debris, while multiple county, state and federal agencies search for survivors by air and sea.
Navy divers have also been dispatched, and are using sonar technology around the last known position of the two choppers about two miles off Haleiwa. So far, they haven’t seen any debris. The two Marine Corps choppers collided during a routine training mission about 10:40 p.m. Thursday, setting off a massive ocean search-and-rescue effort during one of the biggest swells of the winter season. Low visibility also hampered search efforts.
Ocean conditions are favorable for searching Tuesday, but surf is expected to start rising again Wednesday. The Coast Guard says there has been no indication that anyone was ever on the life rafts that were recovered. Still, the Coast Guard said Sunday that it remains hopeful survivors will be found, and in a statement Monday, Coast Guard officials said their goal is to ensure with “absolute certainty we’ve thoroughly canvassed every location we might find them.”
On Saturday, the Coast Guard said it had found debris from the two helicopters in waters off Oahu. High surf has scattered debris across a wide swath of waters off Oahu, from Kahuku to Waianae. “The debris that’s been located is consistent with the aircraft of this type,” said Coast Guard Lt. Scott Carr. “I know a lot of people are focused on the debris, but we’re really focused on hopefully finding survivors.” Both of the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters had six Marines aboard when they crashed. Authorities said they did not get a distress call from either helicopter. Witnesses said the collision produced a fireball that lit up the night sky.
“It was like daytime,” said Chase Tantog, 21, who was fishing at Chun’s Reef when he saw what he thought was a meteor falling from the sky. “It was just a big fireball coming down,” he said. “There was debris, too, on the side, like coming off. Once it hit the water, it just blacked out and then you hear the thunder roar after. It was really loud.”
Witnesses recount collision
Residents up and down the North Shore saw — or heard — the collision Thursday night. Don Williams said the collision produced “two big booms. It shook the house,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what it was.”
Tantog, who was fishing at Chun’s Reef, said the fireball in the night sky was so big “I thought the world was going to end.” One woman said she was at Haleiwa Harbor on Thursday night when she saw what she thought was a flare. “I didn’t see it shoot up, I saw when something was coming down.”
The obvious explanation is that the two helicopters were taken out by the shockwave from an overhead meteor fireball explosion, the force from which suddenly and catastrophically disabled the craft and scattered their debris over a wide area.