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Coast Guard, firefighters search heavy seas off Molokai for 2 from helicopter


    Above, crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ahi, an 87-foot patrol boat from Honolulu, searched Tuesday for two people from a downed helicopter northwest of Molokai.

The Coast Guard searched through the night Tuesday for two men aboard a helicopter that disappeared Monday night off the northwest coast of Molokai.

The agency could not confirm that debris spotted in the area Tuesday was from the missing aircraft, Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle said. The flotsam was in heavy seas about 1.5 miles off Molokai’s northwest corner.

The Maui Fire Department searched Tuesday by air and ground until dusk and will continue to search today, Maui Fire Services Chief Edward Taomoto said.

Representatives from the Fire Department and a Coast Guard liaison will meet this morning on Molokai with the owner of the company and the father of the student pilot, Taomoto said.

Strong winds and choppy seas complicated the search Tuesday, Molle said. More rough weather is forecast today.

At 7:26 p.m. Monday the Coast Guard rescue center received a call from the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport control tower that it had lost communications with a four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter with two occupants.

The helicopter, with tail number N820DF, is operated by Mauna Loa Helicopters. A male student and male instructor reportedly left Honolulu for a day trip Monday and were returning to Oahu when the control tower lost communications.

Ben Fouts of Mauna Loa Helicopters said the student has been taking flight training with Mauna Loa for about a year, and the instructor has been employed by the company for almost two years.

“We pray for their safe return,” Fouts told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a phone interview.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Levasseur said an HC-130 Hercules airplane and Navy MH-60R Seahawk helicopter of the Maritime Strike Squadron 37 were conducting training at the time of the call and were diverted to the area.

The Navy helicopter remained at the scene until the Coast Guard’s MH-65 Dolphin helicopter arrived. The Coast Guard cutter Galveston Island relieved the cutter Ahi later in the day.

The Ahi will remain in the area, and both cutters will alternate in the active search for the missing men, the Coast Guard said.

Meanwhile, a private helicopter heading to join the search ended up making an emergency landing Tuesday at the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex. The two men aboard were unhurt.

Weather conditions in the search area were challenging Tuesday, with 25 to 30 mph winds and 12- to 15-foot seas.

The Maui Fire Department deployed its helicopter to assist in the search Tuesday, and ground crews combed the shoreline.

This is the second Molokai helicopter crash in less than a year. On Nov. 15 prominent Honolulu attorney Gary Galiher crashed his helicopter while flying from Honolulu to his East Molokai property.

Galiher and his passenger, Hawaii real estate agent Keiko Kuroki, were killed. The wreckage was discovered on a remote mountain slope, less than a mile from Galiher’s home. Weather conditions were windy and rainy at the time.

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