SAN DIEGO — A Marine from Belgrade has been identified as one of the nine people feared dead at sea after an air collision between a Coast Guard aircraft and a Marine Corps helicopter.
Thirty-five-year-old Maj. Samuel Leigh went to Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. His father, David Leigh, said from home Saturday his son joined the military right out of college in 1996. His grandfathers were World War II officers and his uncle was a pilot in Vietnam.
Samuel Leigh, the oldest of three brothers and unmarried, was last home at the end of August to attend a wedding for one of them.
David Leigh said he last spoke to his son Wednesday night and knew he would be out flying Thursday.
Six Coast Guard cutters, three Navy ships and multiple helicopters continued to search the ocean off Southern California on Saturday. Rescuers had found several pieces of debris from both aircraft but there was no sign of the victims. No bodies have been found in the debris field, and the mission is still considered search and rescue, not search and recovery, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta Disco said Saturday morning.
Thursday’s crash involved a Coast Guard C-130 with a seven-member crew and a Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra with two aboard as it flew in formation near the Navy’s San Clemente Island, a site with training ranges for amphibious, air, surface and undersea warfare.
The collision happened as the Coast Guard airplane was itself carrying out a search for a missing boatman.
Officials were collecting evidence and reviewing recordings of transmissions by the aircraft to try to determine how the collision occurred.
The Coast Guard identified the nine missing crew members Saturday, as family members tried to remain optimistic their loved ones were still alive.
“Of course I’m hopeful. I don’t want to let my mind go to thinking the worst,” said Jennifer Wiegandt Seidman of Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento. Her husband, Chief Petty Officer John Seidman, was the flight engineer on the plane. “John knows what he’s doing, and he’s fit and he’s very smart. They’re saying that they’re still looking.”
His mother, Connie, said Saturday her 43-year-old son had been in the Coast Guard since he was 20.
“He was flying, just like he liked to,” she said.
All seven aboard the Coast Guard plane are stationed at the Coast Guard Air Station in Sacramento, Calif., where their aircraft was based.
The aircraft commander, Lt. Cmdr. Che Barnes, 35, is from Capay, Calif. His co-pilot, Lt. Adam Bryant, 28, is from Crewe, Va.
Bryant’s mother, Nina Bryant, also of Crewe, said Saturday that all she had been told is that “they’re searching and haven’t found anyone yet, and they don’t know whose fault it was.” She said she is “hoping and praying” her son and the others will be found alive.
“You never know. Miracles happen,” she said.
In addition to Leigh, 1st Lt. Thomas Claiborne, 26, of Parker, Colo., is also missing from the Marine helicopter.
David Leigh said his son was based in San Diego and was focused on a military career “since age 3.”
“He wasn’t mechanically inclined, so we were particularly proud of him, because he had to master an awful lot,” said David Leigh, who lives in Belgrade.
Claiborne’s father, Kenneth, said from his Parker home the family “would like to remain in private right now.”
The accident happened at 7:10 p.m. in airspace uncontrolled by the FAA and inside a so-called military warning area, which is at times open to civilian aircraft and at times closed for military use, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said. He did not know the status of the airspace at the time.
Capt. Tom Farris, commander of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector, said it’s not unusual to have a high volume of military traffic working in training areas and pilots in the area are responsible for seeing other aircraft around them under a so-called “see-and-avoid principle.”
Minutes before the collision, the FAA told the C-130 pilot to begin communicating with military controllers at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego Bay, but it was not known if the pilot did so, Gregor said.
The search covered 644 square miles of ocean but rescuers were concentrating on a debris field 50 miles off the San Diego coast.
The Sacramento-based C-130 crew was looking for 50-year-old David Jines, who was reported missing after leaving Avalon Harbor on Santa Catalina Island man in a 12-foot motorized skiff to reach a friend in high winds Tuesday, authorities said.
The four-engine plane was conducting its search from an altitude of 900 to 1,000 feet and visibility was 15 miles.
Jines’ friend, Linda Jones, told The Associated Press that Jines boarded her disabled yacht and helped her maneuver to an area where they thought they had made anchor. After helping her, he set off to return to his sailboat, which was anchored at the Avalon harbor.
She reported Jines missing the next day when she returned to the harbor and couldn’t find him.
“I didn’t know Dave was in any kind of peril,” she said.