March 4, 2010

Maine man is among the missing in air crash

— From staff and news services

A Maine family was among those waiting and hoping Saturday as a massive air and sea search continued for a second full day off the southern California coast.

Maj. Samuel Leigh, a 35-year-old Marine helicopter pilot and a graduate of Messalonskee High School in Oakland, in central Maine, was one of nine people missing after a crash Thursday night between a Coast Guard plane and Marine Corps helicopter.

''It's a very difficult time. All I can say he just loved being a pilot,'' said his father, David Leigh of Belgrade.

Rescuers continued searching late Saturday for any survivors from the midair crash even as hopes faded.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joseph Castillo said that there was a chance of life because the missing crew members could have been wearing drysuits and were in excellent physical condition.

''We continue until there is no more hope. We don't ever want to suspend the case prematurely, when there may be someone out there,'' Castillo said. ''But hope gets less every day. My hope today is not what it was yesterday.''

Six Coast Guard cutters, three Navy ships and multiple helicopters were searching 644 square miles of ocean, but rescuers were concentrating on a debris field 50 miles off the San Diego coast. Rescuers have found debris from both aircraft, but there was no sign of the crew members or their bodies.

Thursday's crash involved a Coast Guard C-130 with a seven-member crew and a Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra with two people aboard.

The Coast Guard airplane was itself carrying out a search for a missing boater, who had not been found as of late Saturday.

The Marine helicopter was one of two Cobras escorting transport aircraft with Marines aboard en route to a nighttime training exercise on San Clemente Island.

The cause of the crash is unknown.

Samuel Leigh was a 1992 graduate of Messalonskee. He went to Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., the only school he applied to. He joined the Marines right after graduation.

''He always wanted to be a pilot and even though he majored in history, that was his ultimate goal,'' David Leigh said.

His grandfathers were World War II officers, and his uncle was a pilot in Vietnam.

Leigh was commissioned in the Marine Corps in May 1996 and achieved the rank of major in August 2006.

He served overseas, winning numerous medals and commendations, including a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, a Humanitarian Service Medal, an Iraqi Campaign Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, a National Defense Service Medal and a Navy Unit Commendation.

The oldest of three brothers and unmarried, he was last home at the end of August to attend a wedding for one of them.

David Leigh said he last spoke to his son Wednesday night and knew he would be out flying Thursday.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, issued a written statement Saturday about Leigh.

''My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of U.S. Marine Corps Major Samuel Leigh, who remains missing following Thursday night's tragic accident. I am eternally grateful to Major Leigh and his family for his service to the nation,'' Snowe said.

First Lt. Thomas Claiborne, 26, of Parker, Colo., was on the helicopter with Leigh.

Leigh and Claiborne, both pilots with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, were conducting routine training operations approximately 20 miles off San Clemente Island at the time of the crash.

There were seven reported aboard the Coast Guard plane, all stationed in Sacramento, Calif.

Jennifer Wiegandt Seidman said Saturday she still had hope that her husband, Chief Petty Officer John Seidman, would be found. Seidman is a flight engineer with a 23-year career in the Coast Guard.

''I don't want to let my mind go to thinking the worst,'' Seidman said from the couple's home in Carmichael, Calif. ''John knows what he's doing, and he's fit and he's very smart. They're saying that they're still looking.''

The Seidmans married in 2001 and Seidman, 43, is stepfather to her three children, aged 10, 12 and 13, she said.

''I don't want to talk about him like he's gone,'' she said, choking back tears.

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