ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal transportation authorities said Friday that a helicopter returning home from a firefighting mission made a rapid descent without making any turns before plowing into the ground last month, killing the four first responders onboard.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board released their preliminary report, noting that two witnesses on a ridge about half a mile away were observing the sunset when they saw the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office helicopter go down in the hills near the northern New Mexico community of Las Vegas.
It could take a year or more to make a final determination on the cause of the July 16 crash. It marked the single deadliest incident for law enforcement in state history and one of the deadliest for first responders.
The preliminary report detailed the crash scene, noting that the main wreckage was found upside down about 160 feet (48 meters) beyond the area where the helicopter first crashed. One main rotor blade had minimal damage and the other blade was fractured, with the broken part found nearby.
One of the four people onboard managed to call 911 before succumbing to his injuries, according to emergency dispatch recordings. That call to San Miguel County dispatchers sparked a frantic search.
A rancher who also called 911 said she saw dust when the helicopter hit the ground but no smoke or flames.
In emergency dispatch recordings, it was reported that gas was leaking from the aircraft, which the crew fully refueled for the trip home to Albuquerque.
They had spent a few hours that afternoon dropping buckets of water on a wildfire burning on private land near Las Vegas.
The crew included Bernalillo County Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers, Deputy Michael Levison and Bernalillo County Fire Rescue Specialist Matthew King. During memorial services over the last two weeks, the men were remembered as heroes for always being ready to serve beyond their jurisdiction.
Koren, 55, was a veteran pilot who had been with the the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office for more than two decades. He was part of a New Year’s Day mission to rescue employees and a tram operator who got stuck while descending in the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway.
Beers, 51, also helped with that winter rescue and had been with the sheriff’s office for 13 years. Levison, 30, had been with the sheriff’s office since 2017 and had served in the New Mexico Air National Guard.
The recordings show King, 44, a husband and father of two children, was the one who dialed 911. Mortally wounded, he stayed on the line for more than a half hour trying to direct first responders to the crash site. Efforts by the state police officers who were first on the scene to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.