NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Two FBI agents who died while training off the Virginia Beach coast fell to their deaths when a helicopter had trouble during a "maritime counterterrorism exercise," an agency spokeswoman said Monday night.
Special Agents Christopher Lorek and Stephen Shaw were killed when they fell into the water Friday. Both were members of the bureau's elite hostage rescue team, a group known most recently for rescuing an Alabama boy from a kidnapper in an underground bunker.
"The FBI agents were participating in a maritime counterterrorism exercise involving helicopters and a ship," Special Agent Ann Todd, an FBI spokeswoman, wrote in an email Monday night. "The agents were in the process of fast-roping from the aircraft onto the ship when the helicopter encountered difficulties. The agents tragically fell a significant distance and suffered fatal injuries."
It will likely be weeks before a formal cause of death is determined because the state medical examiner's regional office is waiting for toxicology results.
The team is trained in military tactics and outfitted with combat-style gear and weapons. Some of their preparation consists of scuba diving, dropping quickly out of helicopters and battling in close quarters.
"They're really the best of the best as far as civilians. Their only counterpart would be something like Navy SEAL Team 6 or U.S. Army Delta," said Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI hostage negotiator who deployed with the rescue team. "There is no other police or FBI SWAT team that's their equal, because that's their full-time job. That's all they do is train for highly critical terrorist, hostage and criminal situations."
The Coast Guard said it was not involved, although it was notified about 11:30 p.m. Friday. The incident occurred about 12 miles from the coastline.
The hostage rescue team is organized into tactical units made up of assaulters and snipers who are supported by helicopter and intelligence and communication teams, among others. Unlike FBI SWAT teams that train several days a month, the hostage team preps full time.
They are headquartered at the FBI Academy in Quantico in northern Virginia, although they train around the U.S. and can be deployed quickly anywhere.
The group was formed 30 years ago in preparation for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. They have participated in hostage situations more than 800 times in the U.S. and elsewhere since 1983. Fewer than 300 people have been chosen for the unit since its creation.