The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended its search operations for seven Marines and four Louisiana National Guard soldiers who were onboard a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that crashed Tuesday night in a thick fog off the Florida Panhandle.
The official decision from the Coast Guard came at 12:48 p.m. Thursday, according to a news release, about two hours after Eglin Air Force Base personnel announced they had found the helicopter’s fusilage underwater were transitioning from a search and rescue mission to a recovery operation.
“The decision to suspend is always difficult,” said Layne Carter, search and rescue mission coordinator, in the news release. “With heavy hearts, we have decided to suspend active search and rescue operations. Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family of the members involved in this tragedy.”
A total of around 100 Coast Guard, Eglin Air Force Base and local responders have continuously searched for more than 36 hours in a 94 square-mile area.
The Coast Guard is providing technical consultation and advice to the Army as salvage operations focus on recovering the remaining fuselage and debris.
Eglin Air Force Fire Chief he Coast Guard will use a Mobile-based salvage company to retrieve the wreckage and hopefully locate the remains of last two soldiers and the flight data recorder to determine exactly what happened in the crash.
According to the Louisiana National Guard and multiple media reports, two of the four Guardsmen and all seven Marines onboard have been confirmed dead, and their remains have been recovered. The families of those confirmed killed have been notified, according to the Louisiana National Guard. Their identities have not been made public.
The Guardsmen were assigned to the 1-244th Assault Helicopter Battalion in Hammond, La., and the Marines were from the Marine Special Operations Regiment at Camp LaJeune, North Carolina.
According to NOLA.com, the 1-244th “is a combat aviation unit with a mission that includes flying troops into battle.” The unit ferried Special Operations units into combat in Iraq and one of its crews transported Saddam Hussein after his capture in 2003. The unit was also called into duty during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when it was credited with rescuing as many as 16,000 people using their Black Hawk helicopters.
The safety investigation board seeking to determine the cause of the crash is being headed by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center out of Fort Rucker, Ala.
AL.com reporter Carol McPhail contributed to this report.