top of page
FRA-logo (1).jpg

HM1 Jay J. Asis
Died 09 December, 1999



Memorial services were conducted at 1300, 20 December 1999 in the Base Theater,
Mainside, Camp Pendleton, CA. CMC and CG, MARFORPAC were in








All were reported missing and now presumed dead after their CH-46 helicopter got
tangled with the netting on the USNS Pecos and the pilot lost control and was pitched
upside down into the pacific ocean off Point Loma, CA. All Force
Recon personnel were from the 5th Platoon. They were standing up and preparing to "Fast
Rope" on to the deck of the USNS Pecos as part of a training exercise in preparation for
deployment with the 15th MEU(SOC) next month. This was a Joint Operation with the
SEALS, who were in the water aboard their boats preparing to assualt from the sea. As the
"bird" quickly sank (5 seconds), eleven (11) survivors "popped up" to the surface and were
immediately picked up by the SEAL's.

The Eleven (11) survivors were:



Los Angeles Times
December 21, 1999
Pg. 10

Servicemen Killed In Crash Are Eulogized As Heroes

By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- In a solemn ceremony that brought tears to the eyes of Marines and surviving family members alike, the seven enlisted men who died in a helicopter crash this month were remembered Monday as "American heroes" who gladly accepted the risks of their profession.

"Theirs were lives of unselfishness, bravery and dedication," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones told the 1,400 people who attended a memorial service for the seven who died Dec. 9.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said, "I like what the chaplain said: 'These are the peacekeepers, these are the children of God.'"

As the families of the seven left the service amid a bagpiper's playing of "Amazing Grace," a child left fatherless by the crash could be heard to cry out, "Goodbye . . . ."

The service was held just hours after the Navy announced that it had located the last four bodies of those killed when the twin-rotor CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, crashed 14 miles off San Diego in 3,900 feet of water. Three bodies were recovered Saturday. Eleven men survived the mishap.

"I've asked the Marines of the 15th MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] to let their tears flow today so they can go on to the joy of what they do," said Sgt. Major Al McMichael, the senior enlisted man in the corps and an advisor to the commandant.

Six of the dead were posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps commendation medal by Danzig: Staff Sgt. Vincent Sebasteanski, Navy Petty Officer Jay Asis, Staff Sgt. David Galloway, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Starling, Cpl. Mark Baca and Staff Sgt. William Dame.

The final Marine, Gunnery Sgt. James Paige, was awarded the meritorious service medal by President Clinton. Paige's medal was based on his 20 years' service and continued leadership as a helicopter crew chief, Marine officials said.

Jones said Paige may also be commended, at a later date, for actions in trying to save others aboard the sinking helicopter.

Lt. Col. Matthew D. Redfern, his voice breaking, remembered Paige as a Marine who always wanted to be "in the middle of the action," had survived the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and declined to use his seniority to avoid risky missions.

Paige was so dedicated to the corps, Redfern said, that he had given his 2-year-old daughter the middle name Marine.

Danzig noted that the seven died as they were in training for one of the Marine Corps' riskiest maneuvers: boarding a hostile ship on the high seas by "fast-roping" down from a hovering helicopter.

The accident occurred when one of the helicopter's rear wheels caught on a safety screen on the oiler Pecos and the big chopper tumbled into the sea, sinking within seconds.

Aboard the Sea Knight were four helicopter crewmen and 14 members of an elite reconnaissance unit, training for a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf.

Danzig said there was bravery shown by SEALs, Special Warfare Command boat crewmen and Marines aboard the helicopter. "It's amazing that 11 survived, and I think one reason is the heroic actions of a number of personnel that day," he told reporters.

The seven left 10 children among them. Six of the men were married and the other, Starling, was engaged. His fiance sat with his parents at the memorial service. Each family was given a folded American flag.

"America and her families lost the very best this nation has to offer,'' said Col. Richard Zilmer. "There is oftentimes a steep price to pay for the blessings and security we enjoy as .Americans."

Jones said after the memorial, "In 33 years in the Marine Corps, in peace and war, I've been to quite a few of these memorials. They never get easier."

Danzig said it may take months to know why the helicopter became enmeshed in the safety net. He added, "We will take every possible step to make sure this particular series of events does not occur" again.



By Cpl. Christian Deluca

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (Dec. 23) -- Survivors of a CH-46 helicopter crash that claimed the lives of six Marines and one sailor Dec. 9 off the coast of San Diego recounted their horrifying experience at a news conference Dec. 16 at the Staff Noncommissioned Officers Club.

Meanwhile, wives of the deceased service members spoke to reporters about their deceased husbands and thanked the military community for its support.

Capt. Eric Kapitulik of 1st Force Reconnaissance Company was one of 11 Marines who survived the crash, which occurred during training and an attempted landing on the USNS Pecos.

"We got out because we were lucky," Kapitulik said. "We weren't knocked unconscious when the helicopter hit the water, and that's about it. It was luck." Kapitulik said he knew something was wrong when he felt the back wheels of the CH-46 helicopter hit the deck of the Pecos, a Navy tanker. Seconds later, he heard the engines whine and the bird fell backwards into the cold Pacific Ocean.

"Everything went black when the bird went under," Kapitulik said. "I began to claw and grab at the equipment that was inside the helo. I kept getting turned around, I didn't know what was up or what was down. I saw a hole with light coming through and started to swim to that. I broke through (the hole), pushed off the helo and came to the surface." The hole he swam through was the "hell hole" on the belly of the helo -- an exit for fast-roping Marines.

"When I was under water, it felt like I was going to drown for a second," Kapitulik said. "I thought, 'I don't want to die like this.'"

Staff Sgt. Michael Archer, who was in charge of readying the Marines for the jump, also spoke about the crash. Archer said he knew the helo was going down. He jumped from it seconds before it hit the water. He broke the surface just in time to see the helo sink.

"First thing through my head was 'where is everybody else,'" he said. Moments later, Navy crewmen were rescuing 11 Marines from the water.

Four of the widows were at the conference. Julie Sabasteanski, wife of SSgt. Vincent Sabasteanski, Jean Baca, wife of Cpl. Mark Baca, Holly Galloway, wife of SSgt. David Galloway; and Kathy Asis, wife of Hospitalman Jay Asis, held hands and consoled each other. Asis read a statement written by the widows.

"They were an elite group, a brotherhood of men dedicated to serving their country," Asis said. "We are comforted knowing they died doing what they loved." She said they received overwhelming support from people around the world.

"Our husbands would be proud to know the organization they have given their lives to is so willing to take care of us, despite their great loss," she said. "Each of us thanks you for the support we never knew existed."

Two of the widows wrote separate personal statements that were handed out during the conference.

Sabasteanski said that her husband was the best friend and father she will ever know."I know Vin has touched so many lives, and it becomes more evident to me every day," she said. "He will always remain close in my heart as well as many others. I know there will be many stories told about his life for years to come."

Galloway said her husband had a zest for life and was part of an elite group that protected each other and their families as well. "To know my husband, you could not help but to love him. He was so kind and gentle. He loved life and made everyone around him enjoy life as well. He was very proud of his family and his life's work," Galloway said. "I will keep
his memory alive. David, I will love you forever."

"We take comfort knowing these men are together now, in a better place," Kapitulik said.


A Tailhook of a Different Kind...
By Christopher Freeze

9 December 1999

Off the coast of San Diego, California

"Leathernecks and Jarheads"

At its founding on November 10th, 1775, the United States Marine Corps was composed of infantry serving aboard naval vessels and was responsible for the security of the ship and her crew by conducting offensive and defensive combat during boarding actions, and defending the ship's officers from mutiny.

The Marines of yesterday probably won't recognize very much in today's modern Marines, other then their shared spirit and esprit de corps . From helicopters to amphibious tanks, today's Marines carry out a myriad of tasks unimagined two centuries ago.

Thus was the setting on December 9th, 1999, when a routine training exercise unlike any possible just 50 years earlier was underway. 

The training for the day involved an Boeing Vertol CH-46D "Sea Knight", an all-weather, day-or-night assault transport helicopter use for moving troops and equipment.  At the time, the twin-engined turbo powered helo, used exclusively by the Marine Corps, the Sea Knight had earned a reputation of safe and effective travel of nearly 40 years of service. 

However, this reputation had been put to the test in recent months.  A year earlier, there had been two crashes involving Sea Knight helicopters. One killed two sailors in the Mediterranean Sea, and another killed a naval sailor about 100 miles off Borneo.  And a survey conducted by an Ohio newspaper found 71 documented incidents over 11 years of leaks or failures of the hydraulic system of the Sea Knight.

No Matter Where You Go...

The "fast rope" rappel to board a ship was part of the Special Operations Command's 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's pre-deployment workup cycle for an upcoming six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf , and was being conducted as a joint operation with the Navy SEALS, who were in the water aboard their boats preparing to assault from the sea.  As part of the exercise, the Marines lugged assorted weapons and breaching tools, like 16-pound hammers to break down hatches, and 30-pound torches to cut through locks and latches.

At 12:47 p.m. the CH-46D, Naval Bureau Number 154790 and assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 (HMM-166), lifted off from the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault helicopter carrier. The first of a five helicopter assault, it held half of the 5th Platoon, 1st Reconnaissance Company, of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, also known as the "1st Force Recon".

The boarding crew sat on two benches running the length of the helicopter's cabin. The Sea Knight was packed so full, that the First Lieutenant, part of the boarding assault, had to try a sit on an ammunition can.  The helicopter proceeded uneventfully to its designated holding pattern several miles directly astern of the target ship, the USNS Pecos.

Crewed by 89 civilians working under contract to the U.S. Navy, and 6 Navy personnel,  the USNS Pecos is part of the Military Sealift Command (MSC).  A "Henry J. Kaiser"-class underway replenishment oiler, the 677-foot long USNS Pecos (T-AO-197) was placed into service with the MSC in 1990.  She can carry 178,000 barrels of fuel oil at a maximum speed of 20 knots in order to supply needed supplies to frontline naval vessels.

At 1:06 PM., with 10 miles of flight visibility, a gentle 3-knot breeze, and an air temperature of 60 degrees, the helicopter was given approval by the Pecos to begin its approach. At an initial speed of slightly more than 100 mph and an altitude of 100 feet, the helicopter headed toward the ship.

The plan called for the 12 Force Recon Marines, and one Naval Medic, to "fast rope" 30 feet down on to the landing deck of the USNS Pecos, and simulate retaking the ship by force.  Navy SEALs would backup the air assault from the sea and their Special Boat Unit rigid hull inflatable boats (RIBs).

When the helicopter was about a quarter-mile behind the USNS Pecos, Corporal Adam Johns, a member of the flight crew, told one of the pilots that the helicopter was "coming in fast."

"Yep, I'm going in fast," the pilot replied as he slowed things down.

In the Details...

Aboard the Pecos, the chief mate of the vessel, assigned that day as a landing safety officer, saw the helicopter about a hundred yards away from the ship, 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, so the pilot, Captain James I. Lukehart, & co-pilot Captain Andrew Q. Smith, ignored his instructions. They continued downward, low and fast.  At a routine briefing on the sortie back on the Bonhomme Richard, no one had told them that the designated landing safety officer would be wearing white.  Seeing the helicopter coming in hot, a Navy captain, overseeing the operation aboard the Pecos, screamed "Power!" into the radio.

No one aboard the Sea Knight heard the instructions, and neither pilot responded. The landing safety 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."  However, the statement was from the truth.

Coming in low over the landing deck of the USNS Pecos, Capt. Lukehart, who had more than 1,650 hours of flight time, and Capt. Smith thought that their helicopter was15 to 20 feet above the deck. However, as the helicopter crossed the deck, Johns realized that the aircraft was "losing altitude" and made a call for "power," the first such call that Capt. Smith recalled hearing.

Marine Sergeant Robert Evers, who had been sitting in the left rear of the helicopter, heard a thumping sound at the rear of the helo, and thought it must be the sound of the aircraft landing on the deck. "What's going on?" he asked over his headset.  However, in a deviation from standard operating procedures, Sgt. Evers did not look outside the left-side window as the helo descended.

If Sgt. Evers had followed the procedure, he would have been the first discover the reality of the situation -  the left rear wheel of the helicopter had struck and become entangled in the safety netting at the rear of the Pecos.

Aboard the USNS Pecos, observers watching the landing began to shout into their radio calls for the helo to increase their power.  But the crew of the helicopter had no clue that the damage had been done.  Ensnared on the netting designed to save the lives of those knocked off the ship's deck, Captain Lukehart finally increased the helo's engine output.  The front of the Sea Knight lifted skyward, and pivoted about the rear.  The helo tilted and twisted to its port side, and plowed downward into the Pacific Ocean below, the rotors shattering as they struck the water

From touchdown to splashdown, seven seconds had elapsed. 

"Man Overboard!!!"

At 1:16 in the afternoon, fourteen miles to the west-southwest of Point Loma, in the Pacific Ocean, the helicopter momentarily floated in the water.  However, the design of the Sea Knight is inherently top-heavy.  Within seconds, the weight of the two engines pulled the helicopter onto its back, and she begin to sink to the depths below.

Those aboard of helo were confused by what had just happened, and scrambled to escape the flooding tomb in which they were now entrapped.  Some ditched the heavy equipment that encumbered their movement, quickly trying to gain their footing, and find a way out.  The cabin darkened, and the Marines strained to remember their safety training: wait for the helicopter to stop rotating, find a reference point, and quickly move to an escape point.

Several found salvation and escape from the "Hell Hole", a 34-inch square opening in the floor, normally covered, and used for just such an emergency (and consequently, for "fast-roping").

While most of those aboard rushed to save their own lives, Gunnery Sergeant James Paige was assisting his fellow Marines out the doors of the sinking helo. Of all the Marines aboard, he was sitting nearest a door, had one of the easiest escape routes and, as an observer on the mission, he was not burdened with any heavy gear or equipment. With a few strokes, he could have been free of the wreck, and safe.

However, he stayed with his fellow Marines. Evers remembered seeing Paige, even as the helicopter 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."

Sirens screeched on the deck of the USNS Pecos, as the two RIBs behind the ship turned to avoid colliding with the floating mass.  The SEALs, first on the scene, aided those who were able to egress from the sinking chopper.  In total, 11 Marines managed to find a way out of the Sea Knight, whose wreck plunged to the ocean floor at a depth of 3,600 feet.

Nine of the 11 Marines rescued were listed in stable condition aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, which is equipped to handle such trauma cases. However, two of the Marines, Captain Kapitulik (who exited via the "hell hole" and sustained a broken leg) and 1st Lt Michael Butler (who suffered a severely lacerated liver) were airlifted to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.

Coast Guard Lt. Ted Woolridge, a helicopter pilot, was flying on another Coast Guard mission when he received an emergency call about the crash. When he arrived at the scene about 15 minutes later, he saw only a smoke flare and an air crew helmet floating in the water. "Obviously, the more time that passes, the less hopeful the scenario," he stated, commenting on the search at the time.

The U.S. Coast Guard had one ship and one helicopter out searching.  Two U.S. Navy ships, with several other Marine Corps and naval aircraft, were also out searching for the seven missing.  As the search continued into the night,  searchers used some high-tech equipment, including night vision goggles and infrared sensors

But, at 4:45 PM, on December 11th, more than 51 hours after the crash, search and recovery operations were suspended by the Navy's Third Fleet.

Videotape Hits the Airways

A San Diego television station, the CBS affiliate KFMB-TV, obtained a  videotape of the accident, making the visual details of the accident clear to a wondering public. 

Click here to see to video of the crash (WARNING: foul language - 10.1 Mb .mpg file)

Memorial services were conducted at 1300 hours, December 20th,1999, in the Base Theater, Mainside, at Camp Pendleton, California.  At the same time, member of the Navy's Deep Submergence Unit, using their remote-control vehicle Scorpio, found the wreck of the copter, and recovered the bodies of the three of the missing.  Two days later, the remains of the other four were recovered and identified.

As a direct result of this accident, the Marine Corps implemented a training regimen to  teach helicopter passengers how to successfully egress from a sinking helicopter, starting in the spring of 2001.  Before the accident, only select Marines and aviators were subjected to the "Helo Dunker," but there was no standardized program for providing aircraft passengers with the skills necessary to survive a aquatic helicopter crash.

Six months after the crash, the Marine Corps investigation into the cause of the crash concluded the mishap was caused by human error, stating that the helicopter was flying too low and too fast when it approached the landing pad on the Pecos.

The investigation also laid blame at the hands of Sgt. Robert Evers, for not noticing that the left wheel of the Sea Knight was entangled.  The investigation also noted that the preflight briefing was lacking.

It was decided by the Marine Corps not to prosecute the pilot or co-pilot in the matter, but they could face administrative penalties, as the investigation found that the aircraft and weather were not factors in the accident.

A posthumous medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, was awarded to Gunnery Sergeant James Paige, who died while trying to save crew members from the downed aircraft.  The citation for Paige's medal, signed by Marine Commandant General James Jones, speaks of his heroism and valor and how "in total disregard of his own safety," Paige helped others escape.

The Marine Corps League Detachment, numbered #1127 , in East Brunswick,  New Jersey, is named the "Gunnery Sergeant James Paige" detachment, in his honor.

In the 1st "Force Recon" (now called to U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command) annual awards program, the award for Communicator of the Year Award is now called "The S/SGT Jeffrey R. Starling Communicator of the Year Award."  Also, The Special Operations Training Group (SOTG) Building at Camp Hansen on  Okinawa has been named in Starling's honor & memory, and is now called "The S/SGT Jeffrey R. Starling SOTG Building".

In March of 2006, the newly-constructed, state-of-the-art Dive Locker facility at Camp Pendleton was dedicated to one of the six Marines, Corporal Mark M. Baca, who had been one of the first members of the Marine Expeditionary Force Consolidated Dive Locker.

On the Special Operations Memorial at MacDill AFB in Florida, the names of the seven whom died that day in December are enshrined.

By Christopher Freeze

Los Angeles Times
April 1, 2001
In The Line Of Duty

It took only 40 seconds for the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter to roll and sink to the bottom of the ocean. That's all the time it took for one gunnery sergeant to prove that heroism is not dead.

By Tony Perry

When the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, number 154790, lifted slowly off the deck of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on a sunny winter afternoon, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. James P. Paige Jr. was right where he wanted to be.

Paige had not been scheduled to take part in that training flight in which the helicopter would ferry 12 Marines and one Navy corpsman to the oiler Pecos for a risky, exacting exercise in "fast roping" down to a "hostile" ship and taking control at gunpoint. He'd been on limited duty since breaking a bone in his foot two months earlier and could have stayed aboard the Bonhomme Richard, part of a pre-deployment exercise 14 miles off San Diego.

Truth be told, Paige could have been back in his native New Jersey, drawing a pension and starting a second career in law enforcement; at 37, he had been a Marine since he was 16. He'd made tentative plans for the second half of his life but instead had signed up for one final, yearlong tour of duty. The lure of an assignment in sunny San Diego and the opportunity for overseas deployment proved irresistible.

There were friends who could not understand the appeal of another year of bone-rattling rides aboard the aging Sea Knights, another year of trying to match the strength and endurance of young men half his age, another possible deployment at sea away from his wife and their young daughter. But his family understood.

Paige had never wanted to be anything but a Marine. As a kid he fashioned his own Marine Corps dress uniform, complete with a red strip down the seam of his jeans, and marched in Memorial Day parades. He left high school and enlisted.

He was in the Military Police for a time before finding his true love: helicopters. He trained as a helicopter crew member, a job that involves the loading and unloading of men, equipment and weaponry with equal emphasis on speed and safety. In the air, enlisted crewmen are required to assist the pilots by looking outside the aircraft for obstacles and advising them about speed and altitude.

As a fighting force that arrives from the sea and strikes quickly, the Marine Corps is dependent on its helicopters and its men, particularly in the senior enlisted ranks, who fly them. Being one of those men was the joy of James Paige's life.

With a brief tour as a recruiter, Paige's career had comprised a series of duty stations with helicopter squadrons, including the elite unit assigned to Marine One, the helicopter reserved for the president of the United States, his family and their guests. Paige served on Marine One during the latter months of George Bush's presidency and the first months of the Clinton administration.

A decade earlier, Paige had received a far different set of orders, also at the behest of a president. His squadron was among those Marine units sent by President Ronald Reagan on an ill-defined mission to serve as a stabilizing force in war-torn Beirut.

Humberto Morin, who served on a helicopter crew with Paige in Beirut, said Paige was the kind of Marine who was not afraid of dying, "only afraid of not getting the job done right the first time."

On Oct. 23, 1983, Paige left the Marine barracks adjacent to the Beirut International Airport shortly after 6 a.m., eager to get to work early.

A few minutes later, a yellow Mercedes-Benz five-ton open-bed truck packed with explosives roared past sentries and over concertina wire and crashed into the four-story barracks. The building was reduced to rubble in an instant; 220 Marines were killed, more than any single day since the landing on Iwo Jima. Eighteen Navy corpsmen and three Army soldiers were also killed by the suicide-terrorist.

For 72 hours Paige frantically dug through the rubble, sometimes with shovels and picks, sometimes with bare and bloody hands, hoping desperately to find Marines who were still alive. At home, his family did not know whether he was among the dead or the living.
He was not a man normally given to introspection, but after he returned from Beirut, he told a hometown newspaper that he was forever changed by the horror he had seen and that he felt "older inside." He was 21.

"He was a man when he came home--he had lost his innocence," says Paige's sister, Ellen Prusecki. "The smell of death and the image of being unable to rescue his fellow Marines never left him."

Like a number of Beirut survivors, Paige got a special tattoo on his arm, "Oct. 23, 1983. Beirut, Lebanon. 241." And each year on the anniversary of the terrorist attack, he would phone other survivors for conversations only they understood.

IN THE LATTER MONTHS OF 1999, TROOPS FROM THE 15TH MARINE Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, along with a helicopter squadron from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, were training for a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf.

For six months, the Marines would be "on station," waiting to mount an amphibious assault should Saddam Hussein threaten his neighbors, or possibly to board an oil tanker on the high seas to enforce U.S. trade sanctions.

As a gunnery sergeant, one of the highest ranks attainable by an enlisted man, Paige would be in the thick of things as a helicopter crew chief.

A gunnery sergeant, or "gunny," is a rank entrusted with a particular responsibility to instruct younger enlisted men on how to get the job done, how to act like Marines and sometimes how to stay alive when staying alive is not easy. A smart junior officer takes his cues from a gunny.

By all accounts, being a gunnery sergeant was a job that Paige took very seriously. John Sieke, Paige's older brother and an Air Force veteran, remembers a conversation just days before the flight of the CH-46 Sea Knight.

A friend, accompanying Paige to the airport where he would catch a plane to California, was puzzled why Paige was staying in the Marine Corps; he could have retired with 20 years and started to live a more normal life.

"My brother said: 'If I can save just one life by teaching these young Marines what to do, then I've done my job,' " Sieke says.

Even in a profession where a "gung-ho" attitude is common, Paige was known as a "lead-from-the-front" type.

Lt. Col. Matthew Redfern, commanding officer of helicopter squadron 166, was not surprised when Paige requested permission to be part of the mission that day, Dec. 9, 1999, even though the helicopter already had a full four-man crew.

Paige had joined the squadron that summer and, as a crew chief who had flown missions in Beirut under heavy sniper fire, served as a role model for younger Marines. First to arrive in the morning, last to leave at night, always concerned with maintenance, always eager to fly.
"Gunny was a hard-charger," says Redfern, who gladly granted permission.

As the helicopter lifted off, Paige, with more helicopter time than any man aboard--1,849 hours--was manning the right-side gun position just behind the crew door. After a two-month layoff with the busted foot, he was back in the air and happy.

"When and if you fly with someone that senior to you, you learn things from them," says Sgt. Robert Evers, who was seated on the opposite side of the helicopter. "And if you ever turn down an opportunity like that you're a fool."

IN THE MOST ROUTINE OF CIRCUMSTANCES, A FLIGHT IN A CH-46 SEA Knight helicopter is no pleasure cruise. Even the men who love them curse them on occasion.

Big (16 feet, 8 inches tall), bulky, noisy (communication is by headset or hand signals) and given to eye-rattling vibrations, the CH-46 was introduced during the Vietnam War. With careful maintenance and upgrades, it has continued to be the Marine Corps' premier medium-lift, all-weather assault helicopter. And it is not unusual for it to be older than the Marines inside.

Miles of cable and plastic-coated electrical wire line the overhead of the cargo portion. There are two doors in front and four windows that can be used as emergency exits, and a 34-inch square covered opening in the floor called the "hell hole"--for both emergencies and "fast-roping" exercises.

In the air, the CH-46 has a top speed of 166 mph, a range of 150 miles and a maximum takeoff weight of 24,300 pounds. In the water, the dull blue-gray hunk of metal doesn't float worth a damn. The Marine Corps has installed emergency flotation devices to help its helicopters stay afloat long enough for the crew to escape, but those devices presuppose an orderly, horizontal landing.

At 12:47 p.m. the CH-46 lifted off from the Bonhomme Richard as the lead of five helicopters on an exercise to train Marines how to "take down" a hostile ship at sea. While SEALs boarded the ship from rubber boats, the Marines would lower themselves hand over hand from a rope dangling from the hovering helicopter. As part of the exercise, the Marines lugged assorted weapons and breaching tools, including 16-pound hammers and 30-pound cutting torches.

The crew sat on two benches running the length of the cabin. The CH-46 was so packed that a first lieutenant had to squat on an ammunition can. Paige, although senior to the other two enlisted personnel on the crew, was only meant to be an observer.

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

bottom of page