Two members of the FBI’s elite counterterrorism unit died Friday while practicing how to quickly drop from a helicopter to a ship using a rope, the FBI announced Monday in a statement.
The statement gave few details regarding the deaths of Special Agents Christopher Lorek and Stephen Shaw, other than to say the helicopter encountered unspecified difficulties and the agents fell a “significant distance.”
A law enforcement source told The Pilot the incident happened about 12 nautical miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. The official blamed bad weather for the incident and said the agents – members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, based in Quantico – fell into the water. The official said he believed the agents died as a result of the impact rather than drowning.
Glenn McBride, a spokesman for the state medical examiner’s office, said it could be months before his staff can release a final cause and manner of death for the two agents. He said they must wait for the results of routine toxicology tests.
According to a Navy official, the agents were using a ship the FBI had leased from the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. No Navy personnel were involved in the exercise, the Navy official said.
An Army helicopter crashed into a similar ship in 2009 during another training exercise off the coast of Virginia Beach, killing one person and injuring eight.
In interviews Monday, the founder of the Hostage Rescue Team and other former special agents called the unit “elite” while outlining the difficult training exercises members must endure.
“It’s the most rigorous training regiment in law enforcement, probably in the world,” said Danny Coulson, a former deputy assistant director of the FBI who started the team 30 years ago and served as its first commander. “They have to be able to do any mission, at any time.”
Among other things, members of the Hostage Rescue Team are trained to rappel from helicopters, scuba dive and use explosives to break down doors and walls. When needed, the team can deploy within four hours to anywhere in the U.S.
“It sounds risky, and it absolutely is,” Coulson said. “They have the same skill sets as SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force.”
In all, the team has responded to more than 850 incidents involving terrorism, violent crimes and foreign counterintelligence, according to the FBI’s website.
Last month, the team was involved in the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. And in February, it rescued a 5-year-old boy held hostage for six days in an underground bunker in Alabama.
“Whenever things go really wrong, the FBI calls in the Hostage Rescue Team. It’s the government’s 911,” Coulson said.
Irvin Wells, a former FBI special agent who retired in 1990 after leading the Norfolk field office for three years, stressed that the Hostage Rescue Team is different from the FBI’s regular SWAT teams. He noted that agents assigned to a field office’s SWAT team also must perform other jobs inside the bureau, while agents assigned to the Hostage Rescue Team have no other duties.
“Not to take anything from SWAT, but these guys train full time for the most dangerous of missions,” Wells said of the Hostage Rescue Team. “Like the SEALs, they are highly trained and train continuously.”
Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, said SWAT teams handle “normal dangerous situations,” while the Hostage Rescue Team handles larger-scale incidents that involve more specialized skill sets.
“It’s like one level up,” Savage said. “They are a very, very elite team.”
Coulson stressed that it takes more than brute strength to become a member of the Hostage Rescue Team.
“It’s not just biceps and triceps. It requires intellectual muscle, too,” he said.
To join the team, FBI agents must pass a special physical fitness test and complete a two-week selection class, Coulson said. Then, the agent must complete a 14- to 16-week “New Operator Training School.”
“It’s a national loss,” Coulson said about the deaths of Lorek and Shaw. “These are the best-trained individuals in the world.”
Pilot writers Mike Hixenbaugh and Elisabeth Hulette contributed to this report.