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Air crew bodies removed from site

The bodies of a US air crew killed when a helicopter came down on marshland in Norfolk have now been removed from the crash site, police have confirmed.

Captains Christopher S. Stover and Sean M. Ruane and Technical Sergeant Dale E. Mathews died when their Pave Hawk helicopter came down on a marsh near Cley-next-the-Sea on Tuesday night. Their female crew mate Staff Sergeant Afton M. Ponce was also killed in the crash.

A private ambulance was seen removing the first two bodies from the marsh at about 2pm today after a "complex" recovery operation.

It is understood the remaining bodies have also been recovered from the wreckage and will soon be taken to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital ahead of a post-mortem.

Norfolk Police said it had now handed the investigation over to the US Air Force (USAF) as there was no evidence that the crash was a criminal matter.

The USAF, supported by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), will lead the continuing investigation into the circumstances of the crash.

Assistant Chief Constable Nick Dean, who has led the police response to the crash, said: "As has been the case throughout this investigation, our thoughts remain with the families and friends of the military personnel who lost their lives in this tragic incident.

"Even though our colleagues from the USAF, supported by the MoD, will now lead the ongoing i nquiries, we will continue to support their work, engaging with local communities and providing reassurance and assistance where required."

Norfolk coroner Jacqueline Lake said she had notified the Lord Chancellor of the incident, as required by law.

She added that because the deceased were associated with a "visiting force" she would not be conducting an inquest into their deaths.

"I wish to offer my sympathy to the families, friends and colleagues of the four service personnel who died," she said.

Search and rescue teams spent the morning methodically preparing to remove the bodies from the site.

Speaking at the village of Salthouse, near the crash scene, Chief Superintendent Bob Scully said it was important to balance the families' desire for a swift recovery with the need to preserve evidence and provide them with answers in the long term.

He added: "We need to take care of the deceased in an appropriate and dignified way.

"I fully understand the families' distress at such a terrible time but they as much as anyone will want answers about how this happened."

Colonel Kyle Robinson, 48th Fighter Wing commander, told reporters at RAF Lakenheath, where the wing is based: "I am deeply saddened by the loss of these great airmen. They have made the ultimate sacrifice while training to save the lives of others."

He added that no May Day message or any other warning of problems on board the helicopter was sent before the crash.

The colonel said there were no plans to fly four Pave Hawk helicopters from Lakenheath for the rest of the week to give crew and their families time to come to terms with the incident.

"This has obviously been a very traumatic incident for an entire Liberty Wing family and in particular the 56th and we want to maintain and make sure we are taking care of the families and that the air crew members are safe before they head back out," he said.

He sent a message to the families of those who died, saying: "As a husband and father myself, I cannot imagine how heartbroken you must feel, now missing a piece of your family. I speak for the entire wing when I say that we are thinking of you, we are praying for you, and we are here for you."

A number of floral tributes have been left outside the gate of RAF Lakenheath.

A note on one of the bouquets said: "God bless from Herts Aviation Society."

Meanwhile a message on a wreath of red roses and carnations, from the Polish community in Brandon, said: "Four warriors gave their bodies to foreign soil, their souls to God and their hearts to America. RIP."

Another card read: "Thank you for what you do for all of us. RIP - The Smith family."

Now the bodies have been removed, an operation expected to last several weeks will take place to recover evidence and remove the wreckage from an area the size of a football pitch. During that time a 400-metre cordon will remain in place around the site.

Work will also be carried out to establish what impact the crash had on the nature reserve.

Asked about ammunition which was strewn across the marsh in the crash, Mr Scully said it was not a priority as it posed no immediate threat to the public as long as people respect cordon.

Col Robinson confirmed Captains Stover and Ruane were the pilots, while Tech Sgt Mathews and Staff Sgt Ponce were acting as special mission aviators in the low-level combat search and rescue training mission. They were all described as "experienced airmen".

Both Col Robinson and Mr Scully said it was too early to speculate on what caused the crash.

Since the crash, birdwatching groups and residents have repeated long-held concerns over low-flying training exercises.

Richard Kelham, chairman of Cley parish council, said the crash highlighted concerns about the impact of low-flying helicopters on the nature reserve.

He said: "It has been an ever-present issue for the last 20 years or so. If anything, it's got better in recent years as RAF bases have closed.

"The concern is more for the birds than anything else as local people are quite used to it.

"This has brought it to the fore again and, while we don't want a knee-jerk reaction, this is a chance to discuss whether anything can be done to improve the situation."

When asked about warnings from local residents about low flying, Col Robinson said: "I'm not aware of any warnings that we had.

"Obviously we take great care to make sure we operate in the safest fashion and all the rules and missions that they follow are the standard ones followed by the Ministry of Defence."

A derivative of the more famous Black Hawk helicopter, the Pave Hawk gets its name from the Pave acronym standing for Precision Avionics Vectoring Equipment.

They are used for combat search and rescue, mainly to recover downed aircrew or other isolated personnel in theatres of war.

They have a four-man crew and can carry up to 12 troops. Typically, training flights would replicate real missions as closely as possible, which would mean weapons and ammunition would be carried.

In a separate incident, a US Navy helicopter with five crew members crashed into the ocean off the Virginia coast during a routine training mission, killing two and leaving two in hospital.

Rescuers searched into the night for a fifth sailor.

The two who died were among four crew members hoisted from the 5C (42F) waters by a Navy helicopter and taken to a hospital, the US Navy said.

The Navy identified the aircraft as an MH-53E.


From Belfast Telegraph