Crews searched for bodies and wreckage Sunday as hope faded for finding any survivors among the eight crewmen still missing from an Air Force Reserve plane that crashed into the ocean.
“We have officially changed the nature of the mission from a search and rescue mission to a search and recovery mission,” said Col. Gene Garton, vice wing commander of the 304th Rescue Squadron in Portland. “We are attempting to recover remains. We don’t expect there to be any survivors.”
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter resumed the search at 8 a.m., and was to be followed by two Air Force helicopters and a C-130. Two Coast Guard cutters and a Navy frigate also were searching and picking up debris.
The HC-130 from the 304th Rescue Squadron was flying a training mission out of Portland on Friday when it reported total electronic failure and crashed 40 miles off Point Mendocino in Northern California.
The crew of the first Coast Guard helicopter out of McKinleyville reached the crash site two hours after getting the distress call. Under the light of a full moon, they spotted radioman Robert Vogel of Albany, Ore., in a survival suit, clinging to a seat cushion.
“His search light shined on me. I raised my arm out of the water … and he saw me. It was the sweetest sound in the world when I heard that helicopter over top of me,” Vogel said Sunday.
“I was in a state of elation. I knew they were coming to get me and I was like, I’m going to beat this thing.”
He was in fair condition in an Arcata hospital Sunday, where an Air Force team investigating the crash was interviewing him.
“It was a very long time, but when I was in the water, I really had no conception of time,” he said. “I knew that they were on their way and it was just a matter of time … I had to hold on until they got to me.”
Two bodies were pulled from the water Saturday and brought by Coast Guard cutter to Eureka, where they were to undergo autopsies today. Humboldt County Coroner Glenn Sipma said he received dental records and other identifying information from the Air Force on Sunday, and expected an identification team to arrive later in the day.
In Portland, relatives and friends of the crew anxiously awaited news from California. All 11 of those aboard were from Oregon or southwest Washington.
At the Portland Air Base, where the squadron is based, a critical incident stress team met to plan how they will help the families and fellow reservists, Sgt. Tim Davis said. The wing’s Roman Catholic chaplain also met with the crisis team.
Col. Chuck Cinnamon, who heads the Air Force investigation team, said he didn’t know whether there would be any attempt to recover major pieces of the aircraft, such as the engines and fuselage, which sank in water about 4,200 feet deep.
Small pieces of floating debris were brought into Eureka, where they were stored at a Coast Guard warehouse on Samoa Point. A 40-foot section of wing, a piece of the nose and some wheels also were reported floating in the ocean.
Vogel may have survived because the plane broke apart around him. Garton said the radioman’s seat on the aircraft rests against a major bulkhead at the rear of the flight deck.
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