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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 9, 2003

Pilot on mission to recover remains killed, 4 rescued

By Peter O'Connor
Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia — Villagers swam hundreds of yards into the Pacific Ocean to rescue survivors, including three members of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawai'i, after a helicopter crashed today off the coast of Papua New Guinea, a U.S. Army medic said.

The copter's Australian pilot was killed.

The helicopter crashed into the sea minutes after takeoff near the town of Lae, trapping the doomed pilot.

The chartered helicopter was carrying U.S. military search and recovery experts to the site of a downed World War II B-24 bomber to hunt for servicemen still listed as missing in action.

The passengers — three American male lab personnel and a representative from the Papua New Guinea National Museum — were taken to Angau Memorial Hospital in Lae, about 250 miles north of the capital, Port Moresby.

"When they hit the water they all got out as it was sinking and the locals on the shore swam out to them and brought floating devices — one brought a canoe — and basically helped them a great deal," said Master Sgt. Mason Fail, an Army medic.

"I think they would have made it, but it sure helped. Their assistance was welcome. They still had a way to swim," Fail said.

Fail would not comment on the cause of the crash pending an investigation.

Witnesses from the village said the helicopter appeared to be on fire before the crash.

"The pilot told everyone the chopper had some problems and he advised everyone to take off their seat belts," a visitor to the crash site said.

"Two of them jumped before the impact. The villagers were trying to go down and help the pilot, but they were scared of an explosion," the unnamed witness said.

The French-built Aerospatiale Lama helicopter is often used for high altitude operations in rugged countries like Papua New Guinea.

Fail, who was not on the helicopter when it crashed, said one of the Americans had fluid on the lungs and would be kept in hospital overnight for observation. The remaining three were released.

Fail would not release the names of the four survivors, but said the three Americans were expected to return to Honolulu in coming days. The Australian pilot's name has not been released.

Lab officials suspended the recovery mission and recalled a 13-member team to Hawaii after the crash.