Jan 9 2014
Search and rescue teams have begun the methodical process of removing bodies from a Norfolk marsh after a US Airforce officer paid tribute to four American crew members killed in a helicopter crash.
Captains Christopher S. Stover and Sean M. Ruane and Technical Sergeant Dale E. Mathews died when their Pave Hawk helicopter came down on a marsh near Cley-next- the-Sea on Tuesday night. Their female crew mate Staff Sergeant Afton M. Ponce was also killed in the crash.
Colonel Kyle Robinson, 48th Fighter Wing commander, told reporters at RAF Lakenheath, where the wing is based: "I am deeply saddened by the loss of these great airmen. They have made the ultimate sacrifice while training to save the lives of others."
He added that no May Day message or any other warning of problems on board the helicopter was sent before the crash.
Speaking at the village of Salthouse, near the crash scene, Chief Superintendent Bob Scully said teams were now "actively recovering the bodies".
It is hoped the operation will be completed by darkness, with the bodies due to be taken to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital ahead of post-mortem examinations.
He warned it was important to balance the families' desire for a quick resolution with the need to preserve evidence.
Rain, wind and plummeting temperatures hampered the rescue effort today. Mr Scully said teams were prepared to work through the night if necessary.
He added: "We need to take care of the deceased in an appropriate and dignified way.
"I sincerely hope they will be safely taken from the scene by the end of the day but I can't offer any guarantees.
"I fully understand the families' distress at such a terrible time but they as much as anyone will want answers about how this happened.
"Our number one priority is recovering the bodies along with sensitive evidence from the crash site but that must be done step, by step, by step."
Asked about ammunition which was strewn across the marsh in the crash, he said it was not a priority as it posed no immediate threat to the public as long as people respect the 400-metre cordon around the site.
RAF mountain rescue teams and heavy loading equipment were seen arriving at the site throughout the day.
Col Robinson sent a message to the families of those who died at a press conference at Lakenheath: "As a husband and father myself, I cannot imagine how heartbroken you must feel, now missing a piece of your family. I speak for the entire wing when I say that we are thinking of you, we are praying for you, and we are here for you."
Captains Stover and Ruane were the pilots, while Tech Sgt Mathews and Staff Sgt Ponce were acting as special mission aviators in the low-level combat search and rescue training mission.
Both Col Robinson and Mr Scully said it was too early to speculate on what caused the crash.
Air accident, RAF and US investigators spent yesterday at the scene of the disaster, where debris is believed to have been strewn across an area the size of a football pitch.
The cordon is expected to remain in place for several weeks as more detailed investigations take place.
Since the crash, birdwatching groups and residents have repeated long-held concerns over low-flying training exercises.
Richard Kelham, chairman of Cley parish council, said the crash highlighted concerns about the impact of low-flying helicopters on the nature reserve.
He said: "It has been an ever-present issue for the last 20 years or so. If anything, it's got better in recent years as RAF bases have closed.
"The concern is more for the birds than anything else as local people are quite used to it.
"This has brought it to the fore again and, while we don't want a knee-jerk reaction, this is a chance to discuss whether anything can be done to improve the situation."
When asked about warnings from local residents about low flying, Col Robinson said: "I'm not aware of any warnings that we had.
"Obviously we take great care to make sure we operate in the safest fashion and all the rules and missions that they follow are the standard ones followed by the Ministry of Defence."
A derivative of the more famous Black Hawk helicopter, the Pave Hawk gets its name from the Pave acronym standing for Precision Avionics Vectoring Equipment.
They are used for combat search and rescue, mainly to recover downed aircrew or other isolated personnel in theatres of war.
They have a four-man crew and can carry up to 12 troops. Typically, training flights would replicate real missions as closely as possible, which would mean weapons and ammunition would be carried.
Speaking about the experience of the four crew members, who were from the 56th rescue squadron, Col Robinson said: "As you would imagine, with most crews there is a range of experience levels and in general you have some of the more experienced people will fly with some of the less experienced people and this crew is no different.
"They are all highly qualified in what they did and capable."
The colonel said there were no plans to fly the four Pave Hawk helicopters from Lakenheath for the rest of the week to give crew and their families time to come to terms with the incident.
"This has obviously been a very traumatic incident for an entire Liberty Wing family and in particular the 56th and we want to maintain and make sure we are taking care of the families and that the air crew members are safe before they head back out," he said.
In a separate incident, a US Navy helicopter with five crew members crashed into the ocean off the Virginia coast during a routine training mission, killing two and leaving two in hospital.
Rescuers searched into the night for a fifth sailor.
The two who died were among four crew members hoisted from the 5C (42F) waters by a Navy helicopter and taken to a hospital, the US Navy said.
The Navy identified the aircraft as an MH-53E.