09-08-02, 10:55 AM
Los Angeles Times <br />
April 1, 2001 <br />
In The Line Of Duty
09-08-02, 11:11 AM
The Sea Knight proceeded uneventfully to a designated holding pattern 10 to 12 miles behind the rear of the target ship, the oiler Pecos, manned mostly by civilians. At 1:06 p.m., with 10 miles' visibility, a 3-knot breeze and an air temperature of 60 degrees, Paige's helicopter was given approval by the Pecos to begin an approach. At an initial speed of slightly more than 100 mph and an altitude of 100 feet, the helicopter headed toward the ship.
When the helicopter was about a quarter-mile behind the Pecos, Cpl. Adam Johns, a member of the flight crew, told one of the pilots, Capt. James Lukehart Jr., that the helicopter was "coming in fast."
"Yep, I'm going in fast," Lukehart replied as he slowed things down. Lukehart and the other pilot, Capt. Andrew Smith, cut speed to about 60 mph and kept the aircraft at an altitude between 65 and 100 feet.
Smith gave a one-minute warning so the Marines could unbuckle and prepare to stand and lower themselves through the hell hole. Smith then gave a 30-second warning, by which time all the Marines were standing.
SEALs in boats behind the Pecos thought the helicopter was flying low; perhaps the Marines planned to land rather than hover. Marines aboard the
CH-46 observed an inordinate amount of propeller wash in the water.
The chief mate aboard the Pecos, assigned as a landing safety officer, saw the helicopter at 100 yards out and began to provide arm and hand signals for the pilots to increase power and altitude. But he was dressed in white, not the traditional yellow for landing safety officers, and Smith and
Lukehart ignored his instructions. At a routine briefing on the Bonhomme Richard, no one had told them that the landing safety officer would be in white.
Helicopter 154790 continued on its course.
A Navy captain aboard the Pecos screamed "power" into the radio, but the CH-46 did not receive the instructions and neither pilot responded. The white-clad officer began to motion frantically that the helicopter was coming in too low. At the same time, Johns told the pilots, "Looking good and keep driving it in."
As the Sea Knight reached the Pecos, Smith and Lukehart believed it to be 15 to 20 feet above the deck. But as the helicopter crossed the deck, Johns realized that the aircraft was "losing altitude" and made a "power" call, the first such call that Smith remembered hearing. Sgt. Evers heard a thumping noise at the rear and thought it must be the sound of the aircraft
landing on the deck. "What's going on?" he demanded over his headset.
In a deviation from standard policy, Evers did not look outside the
left-side window. If he had, he could have seen that the left rear wheel had hit a "man-overboard" safety netting at the rear of the Pecos.
A second after the thump, Lukehart's radio exploded with calls for "power, power, power," issued by observers on the Pecos who could not see that the wheel was fouled in the safety netting. Lukehart applied more power, and the front portion of the helicopter began to lift. The rear section, in effect, was anchored, and the helicopter lifted slowly, agonizingly, to an
unnatural, almost upright position.
"If you've ever been on a roller coaster, the tick, tick, tick of the big hill before you get the momentum to go down the rest of the roller coaster, that [was what it was like]," says Staff Sgt. Timothy Mueller, an intelligence specialist with the Marines. "It felt like we were ticking back. And then when we heard the engines scream . . . everybody in uniform said, oh, s -- -- --!"
With the nose of the CH-46 straining upward, the helicopter rolled gently to its left and crashed heavily into the ocean. It was so close to the Pecos that spray hit the deck. The propellers exploded into thousands of pieces and the helicopter began filling with water as it continued to roll over.
It had taken six seconds from the moment Evers heard the "thump" to the crash.
The unbuckled Marines were thrown asunder. Heavy, sharp-edged equipment floated everywhere. Safety lights failed. The helicopter's flotation device failed to activate. The pilots' escape doors failed. Staff Sgt. Mark Schmidt said later: "It was so dark that I couldn't see anybody's face."
Marines struggled to remember their safety training: wait for the helicopter to stop rotating, find a reference point and move quickly to a window or door. Men jumped or were pushed from the hell hole, the side doors and the giant hatch at the rear. They tried desperately to shed the rifles and gear that weighed them down. Some found their escape route blocked by bodies or floating equipment. Others, who lost consciousness upon impact, were groggy.
Capt. Eric Kapitulik, the platoon commander, thought to himself: "I don't want to die this way."
Smith, one of the pilots, clawed his way down the aisle of the cabin, looking for open windows. In the darkness, he missed the open crew door. Only on a second attempt did he find an open window.
Fear of death focuses one's attention rather sharply. Of the 11 survivors, according to a Marine Corps investigation, only two recalled seeing anyone in the moments before or after the crash "due to disorientation, shock, rushing air bubbles, murky water or lack of light."
Those two remembered seeing Paige. While most scrambled for their lives, Paige was pushing, shoving and heaving fellow Marines out the doors. Among all the Marines aboard, Paige, sitting near a door, had one of the easiest escape routes and was not burdened with heavy gear. A few swimming strokes,
and he could have been safe. Instead, he stayed. Evers remembers seeing Paige saving others as the helicopter stopped moving and began sinking rapidly. "As we were sinking, there was some light. It was coming through the gunner's door and the hell hole and the hatch and all the parts of the aircraft . . . I saw Gunny Paige. . . Somehow he got more forward, and he was helping people out of the crew door also. We went down. It got dark. I lost him. I couldn't see him anymore."
No one knows how many Marines were saved by Paige. Some had been knocked unconscious by the crash and only regained consciousness when they bobbed to the surface.
Just 40 seconds after the helicopter's wheel had become ensnared in the ship's safety fence, it was over. The Sea Knight sank in 3,900 feet of water, with six Marines and a Navy corpsman still inside. One of the Marines was James Paige.
The 11 survivors were plucked quickly from the water by crewmen in rubber boats who had just delivered the SEALs. The helicopter sank so quickly that there was no time to mount a diving attempt to look for additional survivors. It took two weeks before the seven bodies were recovered by the Navy's remote-control vehicle Scorpio. Autopsies suggested that several of the dead were already unconscious when the helo filled with water.
At a memorial service a week later at Camp Pendleton, Paige received special praise. With tears in his eyes, Redfern told 1,400 Marines and their families that Paige had died as he had lived, "in the middle of the action."
A MARINE CORPS INVESTIGATION completed six months later faulted Sgt. Robert Evers for not noticing that the left wheel of the Sea Knight was entangled.
It also noted that the preflight briefing was deficient. Evers has since left the Corps; the pilots are back on flight status.
James Paige's ashes have been spread off the coast of Peleliu Island in the South Pacific, scene of a Marine battle in World War II.
Last December, a quiet ceremony to honor Paige was held at Sayreville War Memorial High School in Sayreville, N.J. Paige's widow, Marianne, accepted the Navy and Marine Corps Medal on his behalf. She has moved to Pennsylvania and attends East Stroudsburg University. She plans to "do what's best" for their 3-year-old daughter, Annalee Marine Paige.
Marianne Paige bears no ill will toward the Marine Corps or any individual Marine. She knew the risks of her husband's profession and accepted them.
One of her proudest possessions is a drawing of a CH-46 signed by members of one of the squadrons where he served.
Ellen Prusecki, Paige's sister, is not surprised that her brother thought of others rather than himself. Not after Beirut.
"If he had saved himself and left others behind, he would never have been able to live with himself," Prusecki says. "He'd have just kept thinking: 'I left my men.' "
The citation for Paige's medal, signed by Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones, speaks of heroism and valor and how "in total disregard of his own safety" Paige helped others escape.
Marianne Paige has a simpler explanation for Annalee, who still looks up at passing helicopters and asks when her father is coming home: "Daddy stayed in the water to help people. He stayed too long. That's why he went to heaven. Daddy was a hero. Your daddy was a Marine."
Tony Perry is The Times' San Diego Bureau Chief
Senior Chief Don Harribine, USN(Ret)