POSTED: 7:49 p.m. HST, Mar 29, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Mar 30, 2011
Crews are working this afternoon to drain a fuel tank that detached from a Marine Corps helicopter that crashed in shallow water last night in Kaneohe Bay, killing one Marine and inijuring three others.
The helicopter, part of the Kaneohe-based Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 known as the 'Red Lions,' left the base a little after 7 p.m. for training. Maj. Alan Crouch, a base spokesman, said the helicopter may have experienced problems within about four minutes.
"We have one account that the flight may have just literally taken off, experienced a problem and was trying to come right back," he said.
A Mayday was called and radio contact was lost, he said.
The Marines are investigating the cause of the crash and efforts are expected to begin today to recover the wreckage. The helicopter is on its side in the water.
Three crewmen were treated at Marine Corps Base Hawaii and then taken to the Queen's Medical Center last night. Search and rescue crews recovered the body of the fourth Marine from the helicopter.
Two of the injured Marines were in critical condition last night and one was reported in stable condition. The body of the deceased Marine was taken to Tripler Army Medical Center. His name will be released 24 hours after next of kin are notified, Olson said.
Kim Beasley, general manager of the Clean Islands Council, said it appeared that one of two external fuel pods on the helicopter had sheared off in the crash and was leaking JP-5 or JP-8 fuel. Crews were working to remove the fuel from the detached tank, which Beasley said was about eight to 10 feet away from the wreckage on the sandbar.
"One was split and one was barely leaking," Beasley said. "The tank holds about 700 or 800 gallons, but we don't know how much was in it, so we've got to drain it all."
The Clean Islands Council is a nonprofit organization that deals with oil spill response and is helping with the fuel recovery.
The fuel spill was "actually not too bad," Beasley said. "This stuff is special military fuel. It will evaporate readily." Beasley called the risk to the environment "pretty minimal."
A 100-foot-long by 22-inch wide white absorbent material was placed around the leaking fuel tank, he said. The spray-blown PVC is like a plastic blanket that draws in the oil.
Federal firefighters, Honolulu firefighters, the Coast Guard, the base's Waterfront Operations and another CH-53 helicopter responded to the crash scene, about 2 miles from the base at the sandbar in Kaneohe Bay.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Angela Henderson said the Army aircraft spotted two people on top of the helicopter waving for help.
"Apparently there were some beacons or flares fired off," said fire Capt. Terry Seeling.
A Coast Guard C-130 airplane, a HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, and a 45-foot response boat from Sector Honolulu were on scene last night.
Nunes said an oil or fuel sheen was visible moving north from the helicopter this morning.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources sent an aquatics resources expert to the sandbar where the helicopter landed to assess any damage to the environment.
The Navy's Waterfront Operations placed an oil boom around the craft to contain any spills from spreading in the environment, said 2nd Lt. Diann Olson, a base spokeswoman.
"We get tons and tons of aircraft from the base flying over the bay. We're surprised this hasn't happened earlier," Nunes said.
The Marine Corps asked Kaneohe Bay residents finding debris to call Marine Corps police at 257-2123 to arrange delivery or pick up of the items. Olson said these items are crucial for the aviation mishap investigation.
The Coast Guard set up a safety zone and are not allowing boaters to enter an area about 500 yards around the crash scene. A Coast Guard boat is patrolling around the downed helicopter.
The Ch-53D Sea Stallion has been used by the Marines since the 1960s. The Red Lions squadron is scheduled to transition from the CH-53D to the new tilt rotor MV-22 Osprey within the next few years, according to the unit's Facebook page.
The Navy, in a fact sheet, said all of Marine Corps' CH-53D Sea Stallions are assigned to Kaneohe Bay. It is a medium lift helicopter designed to transport personnel, supplies and equipment in support of amphibious and shore operations.
The Navy said the first helicopters were ordered in 1964 to satisfy a Marine Corps need for a heavy lift helicopter. It has since been replaced in the heavy lift mission by the CH-53E Super Stallion.
The Red Lions squadron was activated June 2, 1952, at Santa Ana, California. It deployed to South Vietnam in 1965. The squadron got its nickname during the Vietnam because its close affiliation with a South Korea Tiger Division infantry unit. It was relocated to Kaneohe Bay in 1996 from the West Coast.