CORRECTS YEAR TO 2016, NOT 2106 – U.S. Marines walk on the beach at Waimea Bay near Haleiwa, Hawaii, where two military helicopters crashed into the ocean about 2 miles offshore, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. The helicopters carrying 12 crew members collided off the Hawaiian island of Oahu during a nighttime training mission, and rescuers are searching a debris field in choppy waters Friday, military officials said. (Mariana Keller via AP Photo)
HALEIWA, Hawaii (AP) — Rescuers battled winds of up to 23 mph (37 kph) and waves up to 30 feet (nine meters) Saturday as they searched for 12 Marines who are missing after two helicopters crashed off the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
The winds and the waves dispersed the debris and complicated the search, which was expanded Saturday to include waters off Oahu’s west coast.
“It makes finding things incredibly difficult,” Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Scott Carr said.
The Coast Guard was notified late Thursday of the crash by a civilian who saw the aircraft flying then disappear and a fireball. Someone else reported a flare in the sky, Carr said. It was not clear if the fireball and the flare were the same.
The Marines were alerted when the CH-53E helicopters carrying six crew members each failed to return to their base at Kaneohe Bay following a nighttime training mission. Hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter and C-130 airplane spotted debris 2 1/2 miles off of Oahu.
A Navy P-3 airplane was scouring the ocean, along with helicopters from the Coast Guard, Army, Navy and Honolulu police and fire departments. Two Navy warships and two Coast Guard cutters are on the scene. Honolulu lifeguards on personal watercraft are also looking.
The Coast Guard was keeping people out of a wide zone that spanned about 30 miles of shoreline, citing danger from debris. The zone extended from the shore to 8 miles off the coast.
National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Wroe said Saturday that the surf peaked Friday afternoon and is slowly declining. However, a high surf warning remains in effect.
A storm about 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) to the north and northwest of Oahu was sending large swells to the islands, he said.
The transport helicopters were part of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Known as Super Stallions, they are the U.S. military’s largest helicopter, capable of carrying a light armored vehicle, 16 tons of cargo or a team of combat-equipped Marines, according to a Marine Corps website.
The Coast Guard initially reported that the choppers had collided, but Marine Capt. Timothy Irish said Friday that he did not know if the accident was a collision.
The helicopters normally carry four crew members, but this particular flight also carried one or two instructor trainers, Irish said. He did not know if they were teaching the crew or just observing.
Ty Hart, a 21-year-old from Oregon, was in one of the helicopters, the Oregonian reported Friday night. The newspaper said Hart lives on base in Hawaii with his wife.
Hart’s former high school football coach and teacher, Alan Kirby, described Hart as a positive kid who always had a smile on his face and called him a quick learner on the gridiron.
The family of Capt. Kevin Roche believes he was one of the Marines aboard the helicopters.
Associated Press writers Caleb Jones, Audrey McAvoy and Jennifer Kelleher in Honolulu, Greg Keller at Waimea Bay, Bob Lentz in Philadelphia, Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, and Lisa Baumann in Seattle contributed to this report.