HALEIWA ALII BEACH PARK, Oahu – As the search for 12 missing Marines from two downed helicopters on the North Shore continued for the third day Sunday, the wing’s commanding general flew in from Okinawa to personally review the effort.
But Brig. Gen. Russell Sanborn, commander of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, offered a personal message during a Sunday news conference here at the park that is serving as the command center for the search. He drew from his own experience as an MIA during the Persian Gulf War 25 years ago: don’t give up hope.
Then a captain, Sanborn was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over southern Kuwait during his 17th combat mission in the war to drive Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard out of Kuwait.
“For the first 14 days I was listed as DUSTWUN,” he said, using the acronym for the casualty status of “duty status – whereabouts unknown.”
“So my wife at the time got the report that her husband went on a mission and did not return,” he said. After two weeks, his status was changed to “missing in action.”
Sanborn was captured and held by Iraq as a POW until March 6, 1991.
Sanborn said that he and wife, who arrived with him earlier in the day, would not attempt to compare their experience with those of the families of the missing Hawaii Marines.
But he said he and his wife understood “the tremendous emotional roller-coaster that individuals are probably going through. We just want to let them know that we’re here to support, to throw our arms around them and hug them and let them know that we love them.”
The North Shore park remains a flurry of activity, with a Honolulu Police Department helicopter making frequent landings and take-offs from an open space. Boats and aircraft from the Coast Guard, Army, Marines, Navy, National Guard and other local emergency response agencies have been curry-combing the waters off the North Shore but have found no survivors or bodies.
“We are dedicated to locate and bring back these servicemembers, and we’ll continue our efforts throughout today with all our search assets,” said Capt. James D. Jenkins, commander of the Hawaii Coast Guard, during the news conference. The helicopters crashed late Thursday night, and the cause remains unknown.
“We’ve been searching 24-hours-a-day since we were notified and got on scene,” Jenkins said of the Coast Guard, which is leading the search in conjunction with the Marines.
He said that by the end of Sunday searchers will have completed more than 75 individual searchers with off-shore search craft. Numerous additional searches have been done by shore teams and near-shore boats.
“We have sophisticated computer modeling software that helps us direct the actions of all the search assets,” Jenkins said.
A search such as this tends to expand over time rather than narrow, he said.
“In this case, we had an area because we weren’t certain where the aircraft might have gone down. We look at where things are drifting.”
A computer model lays down a “probability grid” of where things might be and searchers try to cover that area as thoroughly as possible, he said. Thus far searchers had looked at 15,000 square miles in overlapping searches, he said.
The choppy sea has steadily calmed since Saturday morning, which has allowed searchers to actually collect debris they’ve spotted. Jenkins said the pieces have yet to be identified.
Sanborn told reporters that the helicopters were not equipped with beacons that are “crash survivable,” as found on commercial aircraft.
The Coast Guard’s C-130 had to deviate from one of its search patterns when it was targeted with a laser Saturday night, Jenkins said.
“Fortunately the impact was minimal,” he said. “But I’d like to emphasize that that activity is illegal. It’s against FCC regulations, that if we determine who did it we will try to prosecute to the fullest effect of the law.”