BCSO helicopter crash victim initially survived

A still image from aerial video footage shows the wreckage of a BCSO helicopter that crashed near Las Vegas, NM on Saturday, July 16, 2022, after assisting with fire suppression efforts. (Courtesy of KOAT-TV)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

It all started with a call to 911 around 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

One man was “in a lot of pain and disoriented.” He told a dispatcher he was stuck inside a downed helicopter. There were three other people in the helicopter, which had crashed in a remote part of San Miguel County.

“He just says it’s just him right now, but he says there were four people on board, including himself,” the dispatcher said over the radio, launching a frantic search.

By 8:06 p.m. the caller had fallen silent as officers and firefighters scoured a 5-mile area in search of wreckage and at least one rescue helicopter refused to respond ‘due to weather conditions’ .

“The line is open but he’s not answering anything,” a dispatcher said on the radio.

When New Mexico State Police officers discovered the crash site, there were two unresponsive men and two others clearly dead. Within minutes, ambulances and medical assistance were called off.

The four were beyond help.

Clockwise from top left, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers, Deputy Michael Levison, and Bernalillo County Fire Specialist Matthew King. All four men were killed Saturday night when a BCSO helicopter crashed near Las Vegas, NM

It was the deadliest incident for law enforcement in New Mexico, according to Officer Down Memorial Page, claiming the life of Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Larry Koren. 55 years; Lt. Fred Beers, 51; and Deputy Michael Levison, 30. Bernalillo County Fire Department Rescue Specialist Matthew King, 44, was also killed in the crash. The last time BCSO lost someone in the line of duty was in 2010, when a deputy was killed in a car accident in southeast Albuquerque.

Long investigation to come

The National Transportation Safety Board said the BCSO helicopter fell from the sky at high speed, killing all four people on board. But the wire recordings reveal that at least one of the men, who is not identified, was not killed instantly.

The cause of the crash and other details surrounding the incident will be determined through a lengthy investigation, according to the NTSB. A preliminary report could be released in two to three weeks, but the full report could take a year or two.

Officials did not say who was flying the plane.

Prior to the crash, according to the BCSO, the four men had spent the day providing dozens of ‘bucket drops’ and ‘other logistical means’ to help crews fight the East Mesa fire on a field private south of La Liendre.

They completed their fire mission around 6:20 p.m., refueled at the airport in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and began flying home around 6:35 p.m., according to BCSO.

The helicopter crashed in the hills south of the city less than an hour later.

It is unclear which medical rescue helicopter, referred to as an “air ambulance” in the recordings, indicated it could not respond “due to weather conditions”. A Department of Health spokeswoman said its rescue helicopter was ordered not to respond after the men were pronounced dead.

Carly Newlands, spokeswoman for the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, did not say whether their helicopter was the one originally requested and declined to respond. She said a “full investigation will outline and provide those details when released.”

A flash flood warning had been issued for the area north of the crash site in the hours before the incident. A National Weather Service meteorologist said thunderstorms in the area that day brought less rain and more gusty, erratic winds due to a “drying of the atmosphere.”

The call

The call to 911 around 7:30 p.m. alerted local authorities to the crash, according to archived San Miguel County dispatch records. Authorities traced the call to a stretch of County Road B27, west of Chapelle.

“They have (communications) with one of the occupants, they are trapped in the helicopter,” said a dispatcher in the first minutes.

Responding state police and other relief personnel asked how many injured and if they were “ambulatory” as a medical helicopter was requested.

A first responder asked if the trapped passenger said “the helicopter is smoking or on fire – something like that?”

A dispatcher replied, “They told us they saw dust on initial contact with the ground, but did not see smoke or anything at that time. They said there was a gas leak from the plane, of which it is not known how much at this time.

Someone requested that the Federal Aviation Administration be contacted. At approximately 7:45 p.m., an “air ambulance” announced that it was going to cancel due to weather conditions.

“Go down the line and see if you can find the next one available, see if anyone’s ready to fly,” someone said on the radio. State Police officers arrived in the area around 7:50 p.m. and told the dispatch they would begin reconnaissance. The dispatcher was asked if there were any updates from the 911 caller.

“(We’re) not getting a lot of information. Subject is in a lot of pain and he’s disoriented,” a dispatcher replied. First responders then asked what the flight path was.

“I got (the caller) on the line, looks like he’s trying to say south but his words don’t really make sense anymore, looks like he’s trying to say south,” a dispatcher said.

Rescue personnel found a medical helicopter ready to respond to the site and the 911 caller told the dispatcher he could hear sirens from first responders to the east.

“It’s me, I’m running into a fence, so I’m going to go ahead and cut the fence and I think we should get to them,” a first responder said. Then someone asked, “Do they still hear the sirens?”

“Wait, the male subject is no longer responding to the dispatcher’s questions,” the dispatcher said. “The (caller) does not answer – the line is open but he does not answer anything.”

At approximately 8:06 p.m., a state police officer discovered the wreckage.

“They are asking for medical assistance as soon as possible,” someone said on the radio. “There are a total of four patients, two unresponsive and two 10-7 (dead).”

At 8:25 p.m., the dispatcher receives the order to cancel the arrivals of medical helicopters.

“No need for additional medical helicopters,” someone said on the radio.

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