EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Two helicopters flew in the nighttime training mission that cost the lives of seven Marines and four soldiers, but one turned back in the dense fog, military officials said Wednesday.
The other exploded into pieces as it crashed in a narrow Florida waterway, and all 11 on board were presumed killed.
Military officials haven't said what caused the crash of the UH-60 Black Hawk, but the weather was bad enough for the other helicopter crew to return to land, said Maj. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.
The helicopter that crashed had a veteran crew from Hammond, Louisiana, that served multiple tours in Iraq and helped humanitarian missions after Gulf Coast hurricanes and the BP oil spill.
They were carrying unconventional warriors from the Marines Special Operations Command. Like the Army's Green Berets and the Navy's SEALs, they were highly trained to endure grueling conditions and sensitive assignments on land and at sea, from seizing ships to special reconnaissance missions and direct action inside hostile territory.
Tuesday night's training involved practicing "insertion and extraction missions," using small boats and helicopters to get troops into and out of a target site, said Capt. Barry Morris, spokesman for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
President Barack Obama expressed his condolences to the families and said he's confident of a detailed and thorough investigation, said his spokesman, Josh Earnest.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families as the search and rescue continues," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Capitol Hill.
Kim Urr, 62, who works at the Navarre Beach campground near the Eglin Air Force Base training area, said she heard a strange sound, followed by two explosions around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
"It sounded like something metal either being hit or falling over, that's what it sounded like. And there were two booms afterward, similar to what you hear with ordnance booms, but more muffled," Urr said.
Despite the human remains and helicopter parts recovered Wednesday before the weather deteriorated again, it was still considered a search and rescue mission.
"There is always room for optimism," Eglin spokesman Mike Spaits said.
As a small flotilla of boats searched the choppy water, airmen walked shoulder-to-shoulder down the beach, scanning the sand. But more fog rolling in wasn't helping the search.
Associated Press contributors include Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Kevin McGill in Hammond, Louisiana; and Emery P. Dalesio at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.