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Rescuers search for 5 Marines after finding their helicopter in a California forest

Rescue crews are searching for five US Marines after finding their military helicopter in Southern California’s Pine Valley, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing said Wednesday.

The CH-53E Super Stallion had been “reported overdue” en route late Tuesday from a base near Las Vegas to one in San Diego, the US Marine Corps said.

Searchers early Wednesday combed difficult, muddy terrain for the aircraft amid a rain-snow mix, according to Cal Fire and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

“The Marines were flying a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter from Creech Air Force Base to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Feb. 6, 2024, when the aircraft was reported overdue,” Capt. Stephanie Leguizamon with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing said, adding the Civil Air Patrol also was involved with the search.

The CH-53E is a heavy-lift helicopter that can move troops and equipment and carry as much as 16 tons of cargo, according to the US Navy. The Marines onboard the wrecked craft are assigned to Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, Leguizamon said.

Winds were gusting up to 20 mph Tuesday evening near Pine Valley, some 40 miles east of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Winds were likely stronger at higher elevations.

Radar indicates a heavy band of precipitation swept through the area between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., with rain at lower elevations and snow at higher elevations.

Among those searching for the lost helicopter are California firefighters, Cal Fire San Diego spokesperson Mike Cornette told CNN.

Cal Fire San Diego deployed three fire engines and an ambulance after getting its first report about the lost aircraft at 2:20 a.m., Cornette said, noting its last ping was recorded at 11:20 p.m. Tuesday.

Responders searched in Lake Morena, near a trailhead in the Cleveland National Forest but were hampered by “heavy snow and winter conditions,” forcing them to pull back before reengaging Wednesday, he said.

The sheriff’s department also faced difficult conditions in the search, which it joined around 3 a.m., two hours after getting a call about the missing helicopter, according to a news release sent before the aircraft was confirmed found.

“The current weather conditions are a mixture of snow and rain,” the release said, and “the Sheriff’s Department is currently using 4x4 Jeeps to search the area due to the difficult and muddy terrain.”

Super Stallion helicopters have been involved in several wrecks over the past decade, at least two of them fatal.

A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter taxies in 2023 at Inyokern Airfield, California. - Lance Cpl. Jennifer Sanchez/US Marine Corps/File
A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter taxies in 2023 at Inyokern Airfield, California. - Lance Cpl. Jennifer Sanchez/US Marine Corps/File

In 2016, 12 Marines were killed when two CH-53E helicopters collided during a night training exercise off Hawaii — a crash military investigators attributed to pilot error. Two years later, four crew members were killed when a Super Stallion crashed during a training mission near El Centro, California.

The outcome of another incident was considered a “miracle at sea:” 25 Marines and Navy sailors survived when a CH-53E crashed in 2014 as it tried to land on an amphibious transport dock at sea.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named an area responders first searched. It was Lake Morena.

CNN Meteorologist Monica Garrett contributed to this report.

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