Rescue teams challenged by snow in search for crew of military helicopter found in San Diego County

ByJULIE WATSON AND LOLITA C. BALDOR AP logo
Thursday, February 8, 2024
Missing military chopper found, search continues for Marines on board
A Marine Corps helicopter that had been missing with five troops aboard was found in a mountainous area outside San Diego.

PINE VALLEY, Calif. -- Rescuers were battling heavy snow Wednesday to reach a Marine Corps helicopter carrying five troops that went down in a mountainous area outside San Diego.

The CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter - the largest helicopter in the military, designed to fly in harsh conditions - had gone missing as an historic storm dumped heavy snow and record rain over California.

Civilian authorities searching on ground and by air located the aircraft just after 9 a.m. Wednesday near the mountain community of Pine Valley, about a 45-mile drive from San Diego, but rescue crews said snowy conditions were making access challenging on the ground, officials said.

The last known contact with the helicopter was at about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, Cal Fire's spokesperson Mike Cornette told CBS 8 news. That location was based on a "ping" reported to a Cal Fire dispatch center. The agency sent several engines and an ambulance to the area overnight.

The Marines were flying a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter from Creech Air Force Base, northwest of Las Vegas, where they had been doing unit-level training and were returning home to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, defense officials said.

Marine helicopter
In this Saturday Oct. 10, 2009, file photo, a CH-53E Super Stallion airlifts humanitarian aid to be dropped in affected regions around Pariaman, north of Padang, Indonesia.
AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File

It was not immediately known what time the helicopter left Creech nor what time they were due to arrive. Waves of heavy downpours hit the area throughout the night and heavy snow fell in the area's mountains. Cal Fire officials said the military helicopter was reported missing in the area north of Interstate 8 and Kitchen Creek Road, located southeast of Pine Valley, in the Cuyamaca Mountains. The area's highest peak is more than 6,500 feet.

The five U.S. Marines were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Miramar, the Marine Corps said in a statement.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said it was notified at 1 a.m. that the craft was overdue for arrival at Miramar and was last seen in the area of Pine Valley near the Cleveland National Forest.

Heavy snowfall Wednesday in the sparsely populated mountains, which are covered in pine trees and thick brush, was making access to the area challenging, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter. The agency said it requested additional resources and was coordinating with the military, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego sheriff's department and the state Civil Air Patrol.

"We experienced some rugged terrain," Cal Fire spokesperson Mike Cornette told KUSI-TV earlier. "We experienced snow, muddy conditions. We got out on foot and tried to search the area as best as we could this morning, and we weren't able to find anything."

The Cleveland National Forest covers 720 square miles and many parts of its steep, rocky mountains have limited trails.

The National Weather Service in San Diego called for 6 to 10 inches of snow in the mountains above 5,000 feet and gusty winds late Wednesday. On Tuesday afternoon a tornado warning was issued but quickly canceled with the weather service saying the storm was not capable of forming a twister.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the missing Marines, said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who answered questions as the president flew to New York City for campaign fundraisers.

"We're watching this closely and again our thoughts are for the best," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.

About 99 feet long, the CH-53E Super Stallion can move troops and equipment over rugged terrain in bad weather, including at night, according to the Marine Corps website. It is also nicknamed the "hurricane maker" because of the amount of downwash generated from its three engines.

Two CH-53E helicopters were used in the civil war-torn capital of Mogadishu, Somalia, in January 1990 to rescue American and foreign allies from the U.S. embassy.

Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.