The bodies of four American service personnel have been recovered from the wreckage of their helicopter which crashed on the North Norfolk coast on Tuesday.
Captains Christopher Stover and Sean Ruane, Technical Sergeant Dale Mathews and Staff Sergeant Afton Ponce were killed when their Pave Hawk HH-60G helicopter came down on Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes Nature Reserve at around 7pm.
The crew, assigned to RAF Lakenheath’s 48th Fighter Wing, was on a low-level training mission and flying to the firing ranges on the Wash carrying live ammunition.
Capts Ruane and Stover were piloting the aircraft and Tech Sgt Mathews and SSgt Ponce were acting as special mission aviators.
Col Kyle Robinson, 48th FW commander, said this morning he had no reports of distress radio messages being received before the crash and a specialist team was being brought in to check the remaining three 64ft-long Pave Hawk helicopters at Lakenheath. He was unable to comment on the cause of the crash, including whether a bird strike could have been to blame.
Emergency services, the military, partner agencies and volunteers worked through the night in difficult terrain while members of the public were urged to stay away from the area, popular with walkers and bird watchers.
Police reported finding ‘a significant number of bullets’ scattered around the area and a 400 metre cordon around the ‘football pitch’ size crash site remains in place.
Peter and Sue McKnespiey, who own a crab shop on Salthouse seafront, heard the helicopter struggling.
Peter, 61, said: “The engines didn’t sound right at all – I could hear them a mile off. They were sort of stuttering – on and off.”
Sue, 61, said: “I thought ‘God, that seems low’, so I looked out the window. All I could see were the big headlights coming towards our house. They do fly over here but never as low as that.
“Then it roared right over our house and I lost sight of it – but we never heard the crash. It makes me so sad to think of the poor people who’ve died.”
Chief Supt Bob Scully said: “Police and other agencies remain on scene today as the investigation continues and will ensure the recovery of the bodies is dignified and respectful.
“The scene is on difficult ground and the longer term investigation and recovery work will take many more weeks.”
Speaking at a press conference at the airbase, Col Robinson praised the help they had received from the RAF and other UK agencies.
He said: “They were up as soon as they heard what happened. They have special training in that environment that we don’t have. I can’t overemphasise the support we’ve had from the local community.”
The fallen crew, consisting of three men and a woman, were members of the 56 Rescue Squadron whose mission, he said, ‘is to go anywhere and everywhere to save lives’.
RAF Lakenheath has a number of support organisations for the dead airmen’s families and colleagues and the chapel remains open 24 hours a day.
COMMUNITY MOURNS CRASH VICTIMS
The public response to the deaths of four aircrew was described as ‘super humbling’ by a base spokesman today.
Lt Keenan Kunst said they had had hundreds of emails and social media posts from ordinary people expressing support, plus ‘multiple requests’ about leaving floral tributes at the base’s main gate.
Col Kyle Robinson, commander of 48th Fighter Wing, of which 56 Rescue Squadron is part, said: “I would like to thank everyone for their support. We talk about a special relationship between the UK and US but it’s times like this that remind you those aren’t just words.”
He added: “The loss of our Liberty Wing brethren is felt deeply across RAF Lakenheath. I can only imagine the hurt and sorrow felt by the family and friends of these Airmen. You are in our hearts and minds.”
Colin Noble, who lives in Lakenheath and represents it on Suffolk county and Forest Heath district councils, said: “The American airbases have been with us since the Second World War and it’s times like this you realise the risk these men and women take on our behalf, and the community’s. We’re all in shock and our thoughts go out to the families.”
West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock said: “Lakenheath is a close-knit community and I know that this tragic loss of life will be deeply felt. This crash reminds us of the bravery of our allies, in training and in war.”
Norfolk and Suffolk Euro MP Richard Howitt said: “The American forces have always been welcoming to me and to other local community representatives, giving their time voluntarily to support local projects, and there will be a deep sense of mourning in local communities.”
Cpt Sean Ruane’s cousin Brian Meyer tweeted: “Everyone: thanks for all the kindness. I’ll pass it along to his wife and child when we see each other soon.”
Capt Ruane’s wife Rachael said on their wedding website in July 2011: “Sean is outgoing and loves to spend time with his friends and family. His dedication to others is one of his best attributes. There are very few men like him. I consider myself very blessed.”
Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which owns the crash site, said: “Norfolk Wildlife Trust is shocked by the news of a helicopter crash at NWT Cley Marshes nature reserve, and our immediate thoughts are for the families of those who sadly lost their lives.”