- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

From combined dispatches

CATANIA, Italy — A Navy helicopter crashed in Sicily yesterday shortly after taking off from a U.S. Naval air base on the southeast of the Italian island, the Navy said.

Military officials said all four crew members were killed, although they said only three bodies had been found.

The MH53-E Sea Dragon helicopter crashed on land about 10 miles southwest of Sigonella at around 5 p.m. local time near Palagonia in the Ramacca region of Sicily, Lt. Steve Curry of the U.S. Naval Air Station at Sigonella told Agence France-Presse.

“Search efforts for the fourth crew member are being postponed until Thursday morning because of the darkness,” Lt. Curry told the Associated Press late last night. “The crash is still being investigated.”

Lt. Curry said he had heard that the helicopter was on fire before it crashed.

“I heard reports that they did make a distress call,” he said.

The names of the crew members were being withheld until next of kin are notified.

A spokesman for the regional command of the Italian police told AFP earlier that attempts to rescue the crew members had been thwarted by the flames that engulfed the aircraft.

“We think there are three or four people in the aircraft, but the flames are too high and are preventing us from getting close at the moment,” the police officer said by telephone.

A witness, a local farmer, told Italy’s ANSA news agency that the aircraft appeared to veer off course and trail black smoke before crashing.

Lt. Curry said the helicopter was attached to the HC4 unit at Sigonella, which provides heavy helicopter combat support to the U.S. fleet in the Mediterranean.

The huge Sea Dragon helicopters can carry up to 55 troops or up to 16 tons of cargo. Its missions include sweeping for mines laid at sea.

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