LA PUSH, Wash. – Coast Guard investigators will begin looking into what caused one of its helicopters to crash off the Washington coast Wednedsay morning, killing three of its crew members.
A fourth member was rescued from the waters and is recovering at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with non-life threatening injuries.
Witnesses said that the helicopter was flying at a low altitude when it approached La Push, Wash., a small outpost on the Quileute Nation reservation. It is about 100 miles west of Seattle, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore was visibly shaken as he announced the deaths.
"I want to send our deepest sympathies to District 13, to the family and friends of this helicopter crew," said Blore.
Blore said it's not unusual for Coast Guard helicopters to fly low. He said the power lines had been about 250 feet above the water level and that those lines are marked in navigational charts.
Petty officer Nathan Bradshaw says the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crashed in the waters off James Island, near La Push. He said the helicopter was carrying a crew of four and lost contact with the Coast Guard around 9:30 a.m.
The Clallam County Public Utilities District says the helicopter hit a power line between La Push and James Island. Blore said power lines were found down in the area when rescuers arrived, but says it's not clear yet if they had something to do with the crash.
Blore says the power lines were about 250 feet above the water and that they would have been posted on aeronautical charts which the crew would have had with them. Blore also says it's not unusual for a helicopter to fly that low to the water and that the crew may have been conducting normal Coast Guard operations. That will be determined during the investigation.
Two crew members were pulled from the water by tribal members of the Quileute Nation.
Darryl Penn, the harbormaster for the Quileute Nation in La Push, heard the crash and saw the wreckage. Penn said he and his cousin raced out to the wreckage on a small boat and were able to reach two of the members, who were "pretty banged up." He found one of the crew members in the water, wet suit on, and the other in the wreckage.
He said they were conscious but in pain.
"You know, these guys are out here for us, for the guys who fish," Penn said. "When they go down, it's scary."
The helicopter had taken off from Astoria, Ore. en route to Sitka, Alaska. There is a Coast Guard station near La Push with a helicopter pad, but Blore says the helicopter crew did not intend on stopping there.
The Coast Guard deployed a MH 65 dolphin and another MH 60 Jayhawk helicopter crew and response crews to search for the missing crew members. The U.S. Navy, National Parks Service and a Canadian fixed-wing aircraft assisted in the search and rescue.
The Coast Guard has only said the crewmembers are all males. Their names and ages have not been released pending notification of their families.
The helicopter will be salvaged after recovery operations are completed.
Members of the Quileute Nation who heard the crash rushed out to the water.
Three members were recovered by tribal members, who performed CPR on at least one of them.
Blore said all four crew members were found outside of the helicopter.
The crash "particularly hits home and certainly as a naval aviator," Blore said, his voice breaking. "We're saddened."
The MH-60 Jayhawk is a twin-engine helicopter with a crew of four, similar to the Army UH-60. Petty Officer Kip Wadlow in Washington, D.C., says it is primarily used for search and rescue and homeland security missions. An MH 60 Jayhawk helicopter crashed in the Utah mountains in March -- all five crew members survived.