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Saturday evening, in a remote area south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, officials say the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office helicopter – dubbed “Metro 2” – plummeted straight down at a high rate of speed, killing all four first responders aboard.
“When a helicopter lands normally it’s going to be at a very slow descent rate, so this is coming at a very high descent rate but with the same configuration – with the skids down,” said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. “But it ended up inverted at the conclusion of the crash sequence.”
Knudson said all other information – like what caused the helicopter to crash and from how high it fell – would be determined through the investigation. A preliminary report could be released in two to three weeks but the full report could take a year or two.
Officials have not said who was piloting the aircraft.
Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers, Deputy Michael Levison and Bernalillo County Fire Department rescue specialist Matthew King were in the helicopter providing “bucket drops and other air logistics” as crews fought the East Mesa Fire in northern New Mexico on Saturday.
Sheriff Manuel Gonzales was seldom seen without Koren – a frequent pilot of the helicopter – by his side.
“All these people were dedicated, we understood that they loved what they did,” Gonzales said, his voice wavering with emotion during a news conference Monday afternoon. “To the point where I find some comfort in knowing that they lost their lives doing what they love.”
By Monday that fire, on private land south of La Liendre, was about 75 acres and was 80% contained, according to a spokeswoman for the Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Department’s Forestry Division.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all flags in the state to be flown at half-staff through sundown on July 22 in mourning for the four men.
‘Very special’ people
Surrounded by their command staff, Sheriff Gonzales and Fire Chief Greg Perez held a somber news conference to offer their condolences to the men’s families, support to their colleagues and a timeline of the day’s events preceding the crash. County employees, some tearing up, sat in the audience.
The Metro Air Support unit “never told anybody ‘no,’ ” Gonzales said.
“We should all be grateful for that because they were willing to go out on the helicopter, constantly, knowing that that’s a high risk,” Gonzales said. “But they went out there willingly and that takes a very special person.”
He identified some of the men’s family members by name and said the county is offering them all services and assistance.
“The worst day of any head of an agency is the loss of a staff member,” Gonzales said. “And so that’s times four.”
Saying it has been a tragic 48 hours for Bernalillo County, Perez added that it is not possible to put into words how he and his colleagues are feeling.
“The men standing behind me – and the women – we’re professionals in law enforcement, we’re professionals in firefighting, we’re professionals in the medical response,” Perez said. “We’re not professionals in grieving the loss of fellow members.”
Officials did not take questions at the news conference and a BCSO spokeswoman did not respond to an email with several follow-up questions.
A long mission
The air support crew started its Saturday around 11 a.m. by heading to a public relations event – Outdoors 101 for Latino Conservation Week – at the Valle De Oro National Wildlife Refuge on Second Street SW.
Shortly before 2 p.m. – after “another series of checks before they depart on the longer mission and fuel up as well” – the crew took off from the Double Eagle Airport for the East Mesa Fire to help with dropping water and other logistics, said BCSO Capt. Nicholas Huffmyer.
They got to the fire about an hour later.
“They launched from the initial scene and performed approximately 20 bucket drops before landing, serving various hotspots and directed by ground crews as far as where they wanted those bucket drops done specifically,” Huffmyer said.
He said the crew went to the Las Vegas airport to refuel and then returned to the fire, where they continued to help with bucket drops until a little after 6 p.m.
That’s when, they “arrived at the Las Vegas airport to refuel and they’ve considered their mission completed for that day,” Huffmyer said. “And they make preparations to depart back to Albuquerque.”
The helicopter took off from the airport around 6:36 p.m. and less than an hour later – at 7:18 p.m. – it had already crashed in the hills south of town.
“The first individuals who arrived on scene were two officers from the New Mexico State Police,” Huffmyer said. “I think it goes without saying that it’s extremely disturbing to think about the scene that they arrived on. And we know that these two officers attempted to render aid to the crash victims on scene when they arrived. We would like to thank them for their courage and their commitment.”
He also thanked San Miguel County volunteer fire rescue personnel who went to the scene as well, the Garfield County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office who helped BCSO notify one of the men’s next of kin, and the Albuquerque Police Department for its help escorting the bodies to the Office of the Medical Investigator.
‘Our hearts break’
In a joint statement, Gonzales and Perez acknowledged that the men all left behind families and offered their “deepest heartfelt condolences.”
“Our hearts break for their wives, children, parents, and loved ones mourning this great loss. We offer the families of these heroes our full support during this difficult time,” the statement read. “To the Sheriff’s Office and Bernalillo County Fire Rescue, we have lost four of our brothers, and like you, we mourn their passing.”
Officials closed out the news conference by providing some information on each of those families, followed by a moment of silence and a slideshow of photographs – many showing the men in or around the helicopter.
Combined, they had worked for the county for more than 50 years.
Koren, a 55-year-old pilot, had been with the sheriff’s office for more than 23 years and is survived by his wife and two sons. Earlier this year he campaigned to be the Democratic nominee for sheriff.
Beers, 51, had been with the sheriff’s office for more than 13 years and is survived by his wife, son, father and two sisters.
Levison, 30, had been with the sheriff’s office for four years and is survived by two brothers – one of whom is also a deputy – his parents and his girlfriend.
King, 44, was a paramedic of 17 years and a part-time instructor in the Emergency Medical Services program at Central New Mexico Community College from 2010 to 2020. The county said he had been with BCFD for 11 years and is survived by his wife, son and daughter.
Levison was a member of the Air National Guard. So was Koren’s son, the agency said in a news release, adding that their losses will be felt by all of its members.
Levison had been with the Air National Guard since 2011 and his service had taken him to the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Israel and Virginia, according to the news release. His three siblings were also members of the guard.
“If I described him in three words, they would be reliable, dependable and trustworthy,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Gallegos, Levison’s commander. “He was exactly the person you think of when you think of a good airman … always the first to volunteer. He did things the right way and wanted to help others, always an authentic, good and helpful person.”