By Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - The wreckage of a Army Black Hawk helicopter that crashed during a nighttime training mission off Florida's Gulf Coast has been found and none of the 11 service members on board are believed to have survived, a military official said on Thursday.
“At this point we are not hopeful for survivors, and we are transitioning our search and rescue operation to a recovery and safety investigation,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Monte Cannon told reporters at a news conference in Navarre, Florida.
Seven Marines and four soldiers were on the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter reported missing during a training exercise Tuesday night. Officials say the cause of the crash has not been determined, although heavy fog was reported in the area at the time and a second helicopter in the exercise turned back due to the weather.
Search efforts focused on the Santa Rosa Sound, a stretch of water along the Florida Panhandle where the helicopter went down.
Officials at the nearby Eglin Air Force Base were notified of the crash at around 10 p.m. on Tuesday and immediately began a search and rescue operation hampered by heavy fog and a lack of sonar equipment, said Mark Giuliano, fire chief at the base.
When sonar equipment arrived Wednesday morning, searchers were able to locate the helicopter, which had broken into multiple pieces, in the middle of the bay, Giuliano said.
“It was certainly a high-impact crash,” he said.
Some human remains have been recovered, Giuliano said.
The Marines on board were part of a special operations unit from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. They were conducting training involving "helicopter and boat insertion and extraction," with the Army air crew providing the helicopter support, a Marine Corps spokesman said.
The soldiers and the helicopter were part of the Louisiana National Guard assigned to an Army unit based in Hammond, Louisiana.
Names of the military members will be released after their family members are notified, officials said.
The next phase of the investigation will be led by officials from the U.S. Army, Louisiana National Guard and U.S. Marine Corps, and will focus on determining the cause of the crash, Cannon said.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Bill Trott and Eric Beech)