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Hope is fading for 7 Marines missing in helicopter crash

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SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Rescue crews searched today for seven Marines still missing after their helicopter crashed and sank into the Pacific Ocean during a training flight far from shore. Eleven others were saved.

The CH-46 Sea Knight was flying from one ship to another when it crashed at 1:16 p.m. Thursday about 15 miles southwest of San Diego.Fourteen Marines were ready to rappel 30 feet down a rope onto a Navy tanker when the helicopter crashed. Nearby SEAL boats quickly pulled 11 out of the water.

Early today, crews on a dozen Navy and Coast Guard ships and six helicopters used night vision goggles, infrared sensors and other gear to aid divers in the search, Coast Guard Lt. Ted Woolridge said.

"Obviously, the more time that passes, the less hopeful the scenario," he said. "All helicopters are top heavy. When they hit the water, they are going to fill with water, invert and sink."

Woolridge, a helicopter pilot, was flying on another Coast Guard mission when he received an emergency call about the crash. When he arrived at the scene about 15 minutes later, he saw only a smoke flare and an air crew helmet floating in the water.

"We were out there for about an hour and saw no one," he said.

The helicopter went down in 3,600 feet of water. No floating wreckage indicates the helicopter likely sank deep into the ocean with the Marines on board.

It was unclear whether they were dressed in cold-water gear, Marine Lt. Patricia Restrepo said.

If the Marines survived the crash and were wearing the special gear, Woolridge said they could stay afloat for several hours before suffering hypothermia. The water was about 59 degrees.

Of those plucked from the water, nine were in stable condition aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a helicopter assault ship equipped to handle trauma cases, Marine Lt. Joshua Smith said.

Two others were in good condition with minor injuries at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.

The helicopter crashed after taking off from the Bonhomme Richard en route to the USS Pecos, the Navy tanker that provides fuel to ships at sea, Restrepo said.

An initial report suggested the helicopter approached the Pecos too low and the rope, used by Marines to slide from the hovering chopper to the deck, may have snagged part of the ship, causing the crash, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported today, citing Navy sources.

All those aboard were from Miramar Naval Air Station and part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. They were on a training mission to test the Marines' special tactics skills, such as boarding ships, in preparation for a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf, Restrepo said.

Military officials were contacting the Marines' families and Restrepo said the ocean search would continue "until all our efforts have been exhausted."

The twin-engine CH-46 was first introduced in 1964, and is a workhorse of the Marine Corps and Navy. It can carry a maximum of 14 troops in addition to the crew of four.

The Marines use the CH-46E as an all-weather, day-or-night assault transport for troops and equipment. The Navy uses the CH-46D version to deliver personnel and cargo to and from ships.

Last year, there were two crashes involving Sea Knight helicopters. One killed two U.S. sailors in the Mediterranean Sea on Sicily's eastern coast. Another killed a sailor about 100 miles off the coast of Borneo.

The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News reported in October that the CH-46 Sea Knight has a history of mechanical failures in its hydraulic system.

A review by the newspaper found 71 documented incidents over 11 years of leaks or failures of the hydraulic system. There were no deaths, but three of the failures resulted in fires that destroyed the helicopters.