Even though my crash took place in the winter of '97, the recent tragic helicopter crash in NYC where 5 passengers died brought it all home for me again. They were on an open door photo flight when they could not get out of there harnesses fast enough when the helo tipped over in the Hudson river and sank. So I believe my story is as relevant today as it was when it occurred 21 years ago.
We got up before the sun rose on a very cold February morning. We knew from weather reports it was going to be a mostly overcast day. We also knew that we had to fly that morning to keep up with our shooting schedule. The previous day we had been filming mostly side mount at a nearby ski resort and beauty shots so I had all my cold weather gear to wear for the early nose mount shoot. Our mission was to fly down the Casselman River in southwestern PA to film the rapids in the Ohiopyle state park. The park was famous for kayaking and rafting but it was winter and cold and sunrise so we thought it could make for a great shot. Our pilot was Joe, ex-navy, and a guy we had flown with when we did the "Over Philadelphia" program for WHYY-TV. He was amazing, and when we flew with him we were confident that we would get the "blow your mind" type shots we were famous for.
We hovered above the park, checking for any wires that may have been strung for whatever reasons and it looked clear. Unfortunately that morning the color of the predawn sky was slate blue, as was the surface of the river. We flew back downstream and began our run. On the Tyler nose mount we had our half a million dollar Sony HDC-500 with a very expensive Canon wide angle lens. We started rolling the tape and dropped into the river valley and began filming.
Suddenly there was a loud bang, and the helicopter started to shudder. I was under a blanket looking at a monitor next to the pilot. I threw off the blanket and looked over at Joe whose hands on the helo's controls were shaking. Joe looked at me and said, "Hold on boys, we are going down!!" I had flown many hours in helicopters and I knew we had hit something, most likely a wire, the worst nightmare for a helicopter. I started to panic, I could see the shoreline in the distance and I thought Joe was going to auto rotate and set us safely down. Time slowed and I kept thinking, come on Joe, you can do this. He pulled the emergeny rotor brake and calmly took us down, We never made it to the shore. We hit the water hard and the chin bubble at my feet burst causing a wave of ice cold water to hit me. Our safety training told us that if we ever were in a water landing the pilot would try to tip the helicopter on it's side to stop the main rotor blades from spinning so we could exit without worrying about getting our heads chopped off by the spinning blades. In my panic and because of the water soaking me I thought that this is what had occured. I struggled to get out of my seat, but couldn't. Joe reached over and said, "Hey Marc, it is ok, we are upright and your seatbelts are still attached." He hit the release and immediately I was free. At that point he activated the emergency floats on the L-1 and instead of sinking to the bottom of the river, we started floating downstream to where we had been shooting. I asked if Cliff was ok in the back and Cliff called out "What happened?" Joe said, "We're ok, but this helicopter was made for flying not shooting the rapids so we gotta stop her somehow." Suddenly there was a lurch, and the nose mount with the camera still attached wedged itself between some rocks. Joe told Cliff to jump out the side door and pull the emergency deflate on the float. There was a whooshing sound and we came to rest in the middle of the river.
Joe was calling mayday over his radio and trying his cell phone but there was no answer and no signal on his phone. He said he thought he saw some trailer homes on the hills above the river and he was going to swim to shore to try and get help. He told us to make our way to the top of the helicopter by the main rotor and wait for help. I was still wet and starting to get cold. A feeble sunlight was filtering thru and he said that might help to warm me up. Joe jumped down in the water and it was shallow enough he could wade to the shore. Suddenly he hit a hole and disappeared under the water, We started calling out his name, and then he popped to the surface, waved at us and then began swimming to shore. We watched him climb up the bank. The water froze on him and he looked like the Abominable Snowman as he disappeared into the woods. All Cliff and I could think about was that we were alive and Joe's skills as a pilot were what saved us. We still didn't know exactly what had happened but as we shivered on the top of the helicopter we knew we were very lucky to be there. After about a half hour we heard sirens and saw pickup trucks driving down a road that paralleled the river. It was the local volunteer fire department from the town of Confluence that was close by. They were in their full gear and yelled at us to sit tight, they were coming out with a rope to rescue us. One of them jumped into the river and began to wade towards us when he slipped underwater. He was pulled back to shore and they regrouped, yelling at us to sit tight, they were going to bring a boat and come for us from upstream. We gave them the thumbs up and waited. By this time hypothermia was catching up to me and I was shivering uncontrollably. Minutes went by, but no boat. One of the firefighters yelled for us to hold on, a helicopter from the Maryland State Police was coming to lift us off our perch. We were very close to the border and they had heard the calls over the radio and said they were in the area and they would make the rescue.
They were flying a fairly new Aerospatiale SA-365N-1 Dauphin 2 that the pilot and co-pilot had been training in. We found out later that ours was to be their first basket rescue. I was surprised to see the Dauphin, it was the same size Helicopter the Coast Guard flies. They are big and they are powerful. As it lowered to us the rotor wash was intense. The water was swirling and the noise was deafening.
Since Cliff couldn't swim we decided that he would go first. I suppose I also was thinking that I would see how his rescue went before committing myself to the basket. I was glad I did. They tried to swing the basket into us to grab hold of but they couldn't manage it. They backed off and the firefighters yelled for us to grab a nylon rope they were going to lower and then for us to pull the basket to us. Somehow we caught the nylon rope and we brought the basket in. The main rotors were starting to spin because of the intense rotor wash.
Cliff was able to climb in the basket and then was almost dunked into the water before they pulled him up. The basket began to spin as it got closer to the door. He was finally pulled in.
Next it was my turn. Again they dropped the nylon rope and I managed to grab hold of it. My hands were almost numb by this time and I willed them to keep tugging the basket towards me. When it was close enough I just grabbed the outside and motioned for the EMT to pull me up.
His hand signals told me that he wanted me to get in and I just shook my head: No!! I showed him thumbs up and gestured for them to start the crank. He got my message because soon I was twirling my way to the helo's open side door. He dragged me in and motioned me to sit down next to cliff and threw a blanket my way. We were rescued and now the weirdness would take over...
Cliff and I were flown to a playground in the town of Confluence, PA, not too far from where the crash occurred. We were transferred to a large ambulance. I definitely had hypothermia and could not stop shivering. One of the EMT's was an older woman who told me I needed to get out of my wet clothes asap. I tried to unbutton my shirt but my hands were shaking so much, she just said, "Honey, I am going to cut you out of them, don't worry, I have seen plenty of naked men in my life on this job." And with that said, my clothes were instantly removed with a very sharp pair of scissors. I was packed with heat warmers and a blanket. Cliff was in better shape. The door opened and a firefighter came in and asked if we minded speaking to the press. "Sure," I said, thinking it would be someone from the local paper. The fireman looked at us kind of funny and then said, "Okay, if you are sure about that I will let them in from the back door". With that said, he exited through the side door. A few minutes later the back doors swung open and a horde of press swarmed into the small space, cameras on shoulders and reporters thrusting microphones in our faces. Now I was in front of the cameras instead of behind. I feebly pulled the blanket around me and tried to answer their questions as best I could. Our pilot, Joe, was no where to be found. He had warned us before he took his icy swim to shore, to be careful what we said because the FAA was going to investigate the crash and it would be better if we didn't say to much about at this stage. So mostly, as you can tell from the news story at the top of the page, we just praised his skills as a pilot. After the press was shooed out of the ambulance they decided we didn't need to go to the hospital and took us instead to the local firehouse. Here we were given clothes that the EMT said came from her deceased husband and it was here we finally met our pilot who told us his tale. That story will be in my next blog.