1 dead, 1 missing, 3 rescued in Navy helicopter crash off frigid Virginia

Wednesday, January 8, 2014 - 4:13pm

A Navy helicopter's crew sent a distress signal before crashing off the southern Virginia coast, killing one sailor, injuring three others and spurring a search for a fifth who remained missing late Wednesday afternoon.

"Today has been a tough day for all of us," said Capt. Todd Flannery, commander of the Navy's Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, based in Norfolk, Virginia.

Two of the injured sailors are stable at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, while the third is preparing to go into surgery there, Flannery said. He did not know whether the fourth sailor rescued from the waters about 18 nautical miles (21 miles) east of Cape Henry died at that hospital or en route.

Authorities offered no indication they knew the missing sailor's whereabouts nearly five hours after the crash, with Flannery saying it was possible he or she sunk to the Atlantic Ocean floor inside the crashed MH-53E Sea Dragon.

Speaking about those aboard two Coast Guard boats among those participating in the search," Coast Guard Capt. John Little said, "They could not see the helicopter, but they are continuing to search."

The Navy helicopter and its five-person crew set off Wednesday morning from Norfolk on what Flannery described as a "routine mine countermeasure operations."

The first apparent sign of trouble came around 10:45 a.m., when the aircraft's crew issued a distress call.

It went down soon thereafter, with a second MH-53E Sea Dragon operating in the same area providing "immediate support," according to Flannery.

Two Navy helicopters assigned to the same 600- to 700-sailor squadron quickly rushed to the scene, spotting four of the sailors "close to the wreckage floating in the water" around 11:15 a.m., Flannery said.

The air temperature was 28 degrees and the water temperature was 41 degrees, with 1- to 2-foot seas, Coast Guard spokesman Nyx Cangemi said.

The sailors were hoisted up two-apiece in two rounds -- the first pair 10 minutes after the rescuers' arrival, and the other set at 11:38 a.m., said the Navy captain. They were quickly transported to the Norfolk hospital.

"I saw a big Navy helicopter land here and it landed really quick and fast," Chris Goetz told CNN affiliate WAVY at the hospital. "They took two guys in on the stretchers and immediately took back off and came back maybe five minutes later and had two more guys all on stretchers."

The 87-foot Coast Guard Cutter Shearwater happened to be in the area at the time.

"They did not see the crash -- they were that far away -- but heard it and heard our call for assistance and immediately responded," said Little of the Coast Guard.

That ship is one of four now surveying the scene from water level, along with another Coast Guard and two fire boats from the Virginia Beach Fire Department.

The helicopter was assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron Fourteen (HM-14), which is based at Naval Station Norfolk Chambers Field.

The MH-53E Sea Dragon carries no weapons. It has two pilots and a crew of one to six, depending on its mission, according to the Navy. There were 31 of the aircraft in operation, it said. Its role includes anti-mine operations.

Flannery didn't detail the information communicated in Tuesday's distress call or what may have caused the helicopter to go down, saying that an investigation board will be looking into that.

But he didn't hesitate when asked whether he had any concerns, generally, about the safety of MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters in the wake of Tuesday's crash.

"I do not," Flannery said.

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