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Search and rescue crews hold out hopes for Marines missing in Hawaii (+video)

Twelve Marines have been missing since late Thursday night, when their Super Stallion helicopters failed to return to base. Searchers have found life rafts, but no crew members.

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    Marines attached to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 search for debris of a helicopter mishap in Haliewa Beach Park, Hawaii, Jan. 15. Rescuers battled winds of up to 23 mph and waves up to 30 feet as they searched for 12 Marines who are missing after two helicopters they were in crashed off the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
    Cpl. Ricky S. Gomez/U.S. Marine Corps/AP
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The Coast Guard's search for two Marine helicopters believed to have crashed late Thursday night is still a search for survivors, Chief Petty Officer Sara Mooers said Monday.

"We err on the side of caution because the last thing that anybody wants is to suspend the search when there's still a possibility of finding somebody," Officer Mooers told the Associated Press.

After four days of searching for the two Super Stallion helicopters and the 12 Marines aboard, search teams have had no luck finding crew members. The search has spanned more than 18,000 square miles, with a Navy warship, jetski teams, sonar, and dozens of Marines along the shoreline all scouring the surf for signs of life. Crews have recovered three of the helicopters' four life rafts, and the Coast Guard is attempting to recover the fourth. 

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According to Mooers, the life rafts were inflated, but showed no signs of use. Nevertheless, she said that survival was still possible under a best-case scenario. Marine aircrews wear flotation devices in their suits, and receive special training, including survival swimming, Capt. Timothy Irish told reporters.

Survivors at sea have been found after more than four months. Poon Lim, a Chinese sailor working on a British ship that was sunk by a German U-boat during World War II, managed to survive 133 days on an eight-foot wooden raft before being rescued by Brazilian fisherman.

The Coast Guard was first alerted of a possible collision or crash late Thursday, when a civilian called to report seeing the CH-53E helicopters in the flight, followed by a fireball. Six crew members aboard each of the Super Stallions, the US military's largest helicopters, did not return to their Marine base in Kaneohe Bay after a nighttime training mission. 

Coast Guard aircraft later found debris 2-1/2 miles off the coast of Oahu, and the crash is believed to have happened along the island's north shore. Since then, the search has expanded from the west coast to its northeast corner, home of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. 

For the first two days, rescuers' efforts were challenged by 30-foot waves from a storm 1,500 miles north of Oahu. By Sunday, however, the waves had subsided, and a military salvage ship from Pearl Harbor arrived to assist with underwater searches, using sonar and a remotely-controlled vehicle. 

"We are dedicated to trying to locate and bring those service members back," Coast Guard Capt. Jim Jenkins said at a news conference Sunday evening. 

The 12 missing crew members, who come from Oregon to Massachusetts and range in rank from lance corporal to major.

By Monday morning, a GoFundMe page for the parents of Sgt. Dillon Semolina, who live in Minnesota, had raised more than $15,000 to help his family travel to Hawaii as the search continues.

"There are thousands praying for a positive outcome for these Marines and the search and rescue efforts," the family of Sergeant Adam Schoeller said in a statement. "We value all of the thoughts and prayers offered up on our behalf during this very difficult time."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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