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Missing crew member presumed dead in helo crash

Navy Cmdr. Todd Flannery, left, Cmdr. Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, and U.S. Coast Guard Capt. John K. Little, Sector Commander, as they answer questions about a crash of a Navy MH-53-E Sea Dragon helicopter into the Atlantic off Virginia Beach, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, on the tarmac at the Norfolk Naval Station, Va.

A small community of sailors and their loved ones struggled to cope with the deaths of at least two of their own Thursday, a day after a Navy helicopter and its five-member crew crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Capt. Todd Flannery appeared emotionally and physically drained as he revealed the names of the two fallen sailors during an afternoon news conference at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.

Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, 29, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins, 25, died at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital on Wednesday after going down with their MH-53 Sea Dragon about 18 miles east of Cape Henry.

Two other crew members were plucked from the frigid water by a Navy rescue helicopter. One walked away from the hospital Thursday; the other continues to recover, said Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic.

At the same press briefing, the Coast Guard announced that it had ended its active rescue mission in search of a fifth crew member who remained missing. Late Thursday night, the Navy released the name of the missing sailor, Lt. Sean Christopher Snyder, 39, of Santee, Calif.

The Coast Guard and Navy searched for 28 hours over more than 600 square miles before suspending the rescue operation, said Coast Guard Capt. John Little. Crews will continue working to recover wreckage and search for remains, he said.

“It was a very challenging decision to make,” Little said. “It was an exhaustive search.”

Flannery said he wasn’t giving up hope of finding the fifth sailor. All were members of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14, or HM-14, based at Norfolk Naval Station.

Van Dorn, a pilot, was from Greensboro, N.C., and had served for more than six years.

Collins, an aircrewman, was from Truckee, Calif., and had been in the Navy about two years, officials said.

More than 150 people – mostly former HM-14 sailors and their spouses – posted tributes to the fallen on the squadron’s Facebook page.

Both men leave behind spouses. Collins was married last year, Van Dorn in 2010. Photos of the men smiling with their brides were circulating through social media.

Flannery said he didn’t know Collins but had met Van Dorn: “I knew Wes personally, a fantastic young man.”

More than 100 Coast Guard, Navy and Virginia Beach personnel were involved in the sweeping search. A city fireboat with side-scan sonar helped find the fuselage and tail section, which had sunk by the time rescue crews arrived Wednesday.

Navy divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, based at Little Creek, entered the water about 5 p.m. Thursday to search the wreckage for the missing crew member.

The guided missile destroyer Jason Dunham, the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde, the salvage vessel Grasp and a cargo ship, the Medgar Evers, were assisting, along with MH-60 Seahawk helicopters from Norfolk Naval Station. The Coast Guard cutter Shearwater also continues to provide support.

As the recovery mission stretched into its second night, the Navy continued to investigate what caused the deadly crash.

It was the fourth major accident since 2012 involving an MH-53 Sea Dragon, an aging airframe that has crashed at a rate 10 times greater than other Navy helicopters over the past five years, according to the Naval Safety Center.

Assigned to just two squadrons, HM-14 and HM-15 in Norfolk, the $51 million helicopters are equipped to detect and clear submerged mines – a critical capability in the Navy’s mission of ensuring clear shipping channels abroad. No other Navy helicopters preform the task.

The massive helicopters require 36 hours of maintenance for every hour in the air, said Mike Maus, a spokesman for Naval Air Force Atlantic. The oldest active MH-53 is 27 years old; the newest is 19 years old. The average Sea Dragon has logged 6,000 flight hours, Maus said, about 4,000 hours shy of the helicopter’s expected life span.

Flannery said there are no plans to temporarily ground the Navy’s remaining 28 Sea Dragons after Wednesday’s crash.

“I am very confident and proud of the contributions that the Sea Dragon has made, and I look forward to its continued service in the fleet.”

Memorial services will be planned in the coming days, Flannery said.

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