US investigating New Mexico helicopter crash that killed 4
ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) – Evidence indicates that a helicopter that crashed in northern New Mexico after helping to fight a wildfire over the weekend descended at a rapid rate, the craft ending up mutilated and in pieces after first hitting the ground upright, the National Transportation Safety Board announced Monday.
The agency has completed its initial documentation of the fatal crash, but it will likely take investigators weeks to determine the cause. Authorities were in the process of removing the wreckage from a remote area south of the Las Vegas community to a safe location where it could be examined further.
The helicopter was carrying three people along with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and a county firefighter when it went down Saturday night while returning from its firefighting mission. County officials on Monday called the four men heroes.
“It is with sad and broken hearts that we think of the heroes we lost this weekend,” Sheriff Manuel Gonzales and Fire Chief Greg Perez said in a joint statement. “The reality is that we will probably mourn this loss forever. Each of these heroes died doing what they loved, serving others. They paid the ultimate price, and we are forever grateful to these men for the love and passion they had as first responders.
Both Gonzales and Perez spoke at a press conference on Monday afternoon, sharing details about the men and saying their focus now is on supporting the men’s families and their grieving employees.
“It is with heavy hearts that we stand before you. It has been a tragic 48 hours for Bernalillo County, and we are all lost,” Perez said. “I try to put words together to sum up what we feel, what we live. It is not possible.”
Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB, said there is flight path information that investigators will review to better understand the path the helicopter took to return to its home base in Albuquerque. He also said there may have been witnesses, so authorities are asking anyone with information to come forward.
Although it is common for afternoon and evening thunderstorms to surround New Mexico during the monsoon season, it does not appear that there was severe weather at the time of the crash, Knudson said.
“But we will look into everything as part of the investigation,” he said.
The weekend proved deadly for air travel. The NTSB has reported numerous fatal crashes in recent days, including a Sunday in Nevada in which four people were killed when two small planes collided at North Las Vegas airport..
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered flags to be flown at half-mast until sunset Friday in honor of first responders killed in Saturday’s crash.
Among them was Deputy Larry Koren, 55, a veteran pilot who had worked for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office for more than two decades. He was part of a New Year’s Eve mission to rescue employees and a tram operator who got stuck descending the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway. He is survived by his wife and two sons.
Lt. Fred Beers, 51, also assisted in that winter rescue and was among those killed in Saturday’s crash. Beers, who had worked for the sheriff’s office for 13 years, left behind a wife and son.
Deputy Michael Levison, 30, who had worked in the sheriff’s office since 2017 and had served in the New Mexico Air National Guard, and Bernalillo County Fire Department rescue specialist Matthew King, 44 , who was a husband and father of two children, were also killed. .
Fellow police and firefighters lined highway overpasses as the men’s bodies were brought to Albuquerque on Sunday. Many saluted while others held their hands over their hearts. Some also spoke of how the men were always ready to serve beyond their jurisdiction.
“They went there of their own free will and it takes a very special person to be that brave,” Gonzales said Monday, adding that the air support team has never turned down requests for help.
The crew had spent a few hours Saturday afternoon making water drops and moving gear for firefighters battling a blaze south of Las Vegas. They left Las Vegas airport around 6:30 p.m. just after refueling and it was less than 45 minutes later that they disappeared from radar.
Authorities did not say whether there had been radio traffic from the helicopter just before the crash.
Two New Mexico State Police officers were first on the scene and attempted to provide assistance. Authorities did not say whether any of the crash victims were conscious when officers arrived.
It’s been a particularly rough start to the fire season, with the Bernalillo County team helping just a month ago throw water on a wildfire that erupted in a rugged area to the east from Albuquerque. With resources dwindling in the area, municipal firefighters and first responders were often assigned to help fight wildfires.