Victims of Sigonella crash found
By KENDRA HELMER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 18, 2003
The executive officer of a Sigonella, Sicily-based helicopter squadron was among four killed when an MH-53E Sea Dragon crashed in a field Wednesday.
No one survived the fiery crash, which occurred at 5 p.m. on a pond embankment near the town of Palagonia, about 10 miles west-southwest of Naval Air Station Sigonella.
Bodies of three of the sailors were recovered Wednesday evening; the fourth was found in the wreckage around noon Thursday, said Lt. Steve Curry, base spokesman.
The Heavy Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Four (HC-4) crew included the executive officer, Cmdr. Kevin A. Bianchi, 40, from Maplewood, N.J.; Lt. Peter Ober, 27, a pilot from Jacksonville, Fla.; Petty Officer 1st Class Brian P. Gibson, 33, an aviation structural mechanic from Richmond, Va.; and Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Cox, 21, an aviation electrician’s mate from Duluth, Minn.
The crew, on a routine training mission on a clear day, made a distress call before going down, Curry said.
“I don’t know what the content of the call was,” said Curry, who heard reports the aircraft may have been on fire in the air. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Base personnel helped extinguish the blaze. About 50 people responded to the scene, including security, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, operations personnel, HC-4 personnel and fire and emergency services.
HC-4 members took control of the scene Thursday; it will be cleaned up after a site investigation. Curry said the farming pond might be drained to recover aircraft parts. The 99-foot-long copter rests on the embankment, its tail rotor in the pond.
Members of the squadron, nicknamed the “Black Stallions,” did not want to comment.
“The squadron is being very supportive of each other in dealing with this loss,” Curry said.
Curry said a memorial service will take place sometime next week. The squadron’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Michael J. Fitzpatrick, is en route to Sicily from the States.
HC-4, whose area of operation spans Europe, Africa and the Middle East, provides support to the fleet in the Mediterranean. More than 35 officers and 240 enlisted sailors belong to the squadron, which recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its commissioning.
The last incident involving a Black Stallions copter was a hard landing at the base June 27, 2002, in which no one was injured.