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7 Marines, 4 soldiers presumed dead after Florida helicopter crash

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By Greg Botelho and Jason Hanna
CNN

PENSACOLA, Fla. (March 11, 2015) — Eleven U.S. military members were presumed dead Wednesday morning, according to a U.S. Defense official, after their Black Hawk helicopter crashed into waters off the Florida Panhandle during a nighttime training mission.

The helicopter, carrying seven Marines and four Army aircrew members, was reported missing during foggy conditions at about 8:30 p.m. (9:30 p.m. ET) Tuesday, and searchers found debris around Okaloosa Island near Eglin Air Force Base at about 2 a.m. Wednesday, base spokesman Andy Bourland said.

This debris washed up on both the north and south sides of Santa Rosa Sound, which connects mainland northern Florida and a barrier island.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday about the service members involved in the crash.

The Air Force, Coast Guard and civilian agencies participated in an intensive search focused on where they believe the aircraft went down, in waters east of the town of Navarre and the Navarre Bridge and near Eglin testing range site A-17.

Those efforts were helped Wednesday morning by the rising sun, but not the shrouding fog.

“The sun has finally come up, however there is still an intense amount of fog,” Eglin spokeswoman Sara Vidoni said shortly after 8 a.m. “So search-and-rescue efforts do continue, but it is slow going due to the heavy fog.”

Second Black Hawk involved in mission got back safely

No one is saying what caused the accident, with Vidoni indicating only that there’s no indication of anything suspicious.

There was heavy fog in the area when the aircraft went missing, though the Eglin spokeswoman said it’s too early to tell whether that had anything to do with the crash.

“There is training in all conditions; that’s part of the military mission,” Vidoni said. “I don’t know the specifics about this training mission and what they were doing, … but they were out there doing what the military does.”

The UH-60 helicopter wasn’t alone when it went down. A second Black Hawk — assigned to 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion based in Hammond, Louisiana — safely returned to the base, some 40 miles east of Pensacola.

The aircraft were both assigned to the Louisiana Army National Guard out of Hammond and taking part in what the U.S. military called a “routine training mission involving the Marine Special Operations Regiment” out of Camp Lejeune.

“Whatever the trouble was with the one aircraft, it did not involve the second helicopter that was participating in the exercise,” Bourland said.

Seven Marines based out of Camp Lejeune

The Army aircrew members were part of the Army National Guard unit out of Louisiana, according to Carter. All seven Marines were based out of Camp Lejuene, an expansive North Carolina base that is home to seven major Marine commands, one Navy command and a total of about 170,000 active deputy, dependent, retired and civilian personnel.

The names of those aboard have not been released.

They would be the latest U.S. service members who have died in noncombat crashes.

In January, two Marines died when their helicopter went down at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California.

And last March, an F/A-18C Hornet’s pilot died after a crash about 70 miles east of Naval Air Station Fallon in western Nevada.

This week’s crash involved a UH-60 Black Hawk, a twin-engine helicopter introduced into Army service in 1979 in place of the iconic UH-1 Huey. Other branches have modified the Black Hawk for their own uses, including the Navy’s SH-60 (the Sea Hawk), the Air Force’s MH-60 (the Pave Hawk) and the Coast Guard’s HH-60 (the Jayhawk).

The Army’s UH-60 helicopter, which has a maximum speed of 173 mph, has an airframe “designed to progressively crush on impact to protect the crew and passengers,” according to the service.

CNN’s Jamie Crawford and Brad Lendon contributed to this report.