A Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter flies during training at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego on Feb. 6, 2024. (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)
Five Marines who went missing when a helicopter crashed in California this week have been found dead, officials said on Feb. 8.
“Five Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing have been confirmed deceased following a CH-53E helicopter crash on Feb. 6, 2024,” the Marine Corps unit said in a statement. “Efforts to recover the remains of the Marines and equipment have begun and an investigation is underway.”
The identities of the Marines weren’t released, pending next-of-kin notifications.
“It is with a heavy heart and profound sadness that I share the loss of five outstanding Marines from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and the ‘Flying Tigers’ while conducting a training flight last night,” Maj. Gen. Michael J. Borgschulte, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said in a statement. “These pilots and crewmembers were serving a calling greater than self and were proud to do so. We will forever be grateful for their call to duty and selfless service. To the families of our fallen Marines, we send our deepest condolences and commit to ensuring your support and care during this incredibly difficult time.”
Capt. Stephanie Leguizamon, spokesperson for the wing, said she had little information beyond the statement.
“I do know that it’s cold ... I know that’s been a contentious issue” for searchers in reaching the crash site, she said.
President Joe Biden said in a statement that he and First Lady Jill Biden are “heartbroken” to learn of the Marines’ deaths.
“Our service members represent the very best of our nation—and these five Marines were no exception,” President Biden said. “As the Department of Defense continues to assess what occurred, we extend our deepest condolences to their families, their squadron, and the U.S. Marine Corps as we grieve the loss of five of our nation’s finest warriors.”
Rescue personnel meet at a command center in Kitchen Creek, Calif., on Feb. 7, 2024. A Marine Corps helicopter that had been missing with five troops aboard as a historic storm continued drenching California was found on the morning of Feb. 7 in a mountainous area outside San Diego. (Denis Poroy/AP Photo)
The Marines were conducting a training exercise when the incident happened.
They departed on a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter from Creech Air Force Base in Clark County, Nevada, and were supposed to land at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California on Feb. 6, a Marines spokesman said.
When the aircraft was reported as overdue, search and rescue efforts started.
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department said it received a call about the missing helicopter at about 1 a.m. on Feb. 7 and that search operations began conducting operations within two hours.
But the snow was making it hard to access the area, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which was assisting with the search, said in a statement.
“We experienced some rugged terrain,” Cal Fire spokesperson Mike Cornette told KUSI-TV. “We experienced snow, muddy conditions. We got out on foot and tried to search the area as best as we could this morning, and we weren’t able to find anything.”
The helicopter was later found by searchers in Pine Valley, California, at 9:08 a.m. local time, according to a spokesperson for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Pine Valley is about 45 miles from San Diego.
However, the Marines were not located with the discovery of the helicopter.
The CH-53E Super Stallion
The CH-53E Super Stallion is the largest helicopter in the military. It was designed to fly in harsh conditions, and the Marines have used it for heavy-lifting duties around the world for more than three decades. More than 130 are in operation.
Equipped with GPS, infrared radar, and other equipment, the aircraft has performed “a full range of military combat operations in Beirut, Somalia, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya,” according to a U.S. Navy website
About 99 feet long, the Super Stallion can move troops and equipment from ships to shore, ferry supplies, and launch amphibious assaults.
Nicknamed the “hurricane maker” because of the downwash from its three engines, the Super Stallion is capable of lifting heavy military equipment and delivering it 50 miles away before returning to base.
It was designed to carry up to 55 troops or about 16 tons of cargo both inside and slung outside the cabin. With an external load, the helicopter can weigh up to nearly 35 tons.
Two CH-53E helicopters were used in the civil war-torn capital of Mogadishu, Somalia, in January 1990 to rescue American and foreign diplomats and civilians from the U.S. Embassy.
The helicopter has been involved in several deadly accidents.
In 2018, four Marines from Miramar died when their Super Stallion crashed near El Centro, near the California–Mexico border, during a training mission. The Marine Corps ruled out pilot error for the accident. The victims’ families later sued two companies they alleged provided a defective part that they blamed for the crash.
In 2005, a Super Stallion went down in a sandstorm in Iraq, killing 31 people on board. The accident, blamed on pilot error, was the single deadliest loss of U.S. troops during the war.
Zachary Stieber and The Associated Press contributed to this report.