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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Mission Critical
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Mission Critical

One year after a fatal helicopter crash, police and rescue workers remain at odds

June 9, 2010, 12:00 am

For a moment, it looked like there was a way out. In the cockpit of the New Mexico State Police helicopter, sitting idle on a mountain ridge in the Pecos Wilderness northeast of Santa Fe, Sgt. Andrew Tingwall pointed at a break in the clouds. To his fellow officer, 29-year-old Wesley Cox, it looked like a tunnel, a thin valley through the dark and ominous cloud bank overhead.

It was almost 9:30 pm on June 9, 2009, and the sky was nearly dark. Even though it was almost summer, a major winter-like storm was blowing in toward the high peaks above Santa Fe. The gusts on the ridge were strong enough to throw a man off his feet, and sleet was hissing against the helicopter’s windows. Sgt. Tingwall, the state police’s chief pilot, decided it was safe enough to fly, but he knew it wouldn’t be for long.

While Tingwall powered up the high-powered Agusta Spa A-109E police helicopter, Officer Cox got in the back seat with Megumi Yamamoto, the 26-year-old lost hiker the two officers had spent the last several hours looking for. Yamamoto, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, had gotten separated from her boyfriend while hiking in the remote wilderness that afternoon, and was spotted from the police helicopter shortly before sunset.

Almost immediately after takeoff, the clouds closed in around the helicopter. Tingwall was flying blind. He climbed to 12,300 feet and turned toward Santa Fe.

Suddenly, he pulled hard on the controls. There was a loud noise. The tail had hit something near the top of a mountain ridge hidden by the clouds. A strange mechanical sound could be heard. The helicopter was running roughly. While Tingwall struggled at the controls, Yamamoto grabbed onto Officer Cox.

“Alright dude, we got this,” Cox said to Tingwall, according to his later testimony.

“No, we’re going down,” Tingwall said. He radioed to the state police dispatch center on Cerrillos Road.

“Leighann, can you hear me?” Tingwall said.

The dispatcher on duty happened to be Leighann Tingwall, his wife.

“Affirmative,” she replied. “Alright, I struck a mountainside,” Tingwall said, breathing heavily. “Going down.”

There was a four-second pause. “Are you 10-4?” came Leighann’s incredulous reply, using the police code for “OK.”

“Negative,” Tingwall said curtly. He left his microphone open, and his fast and heavy breathing was broadcast over the police airwaves as he frantically tried to land the aircraft on the rocky ridge, a 30- to 40-degree slope of granite boulders that spilled away for 800 vertical feet below him. The breathing continued for 35 seconds.

“Santa Fe—606?” Leighann said desperately, using the code name for Tingwall’s helicopter. Tingwall didn’t respond. Leighann could hear his voice tell his passengers to hang on. Then the microphone clicked closed.

As Tingwall set the crippled chopper down on the steep slope, it tipped over and began to roll. Cox held onto Yamamoto and closed his eyes. The helicopter began to spin and tumble down the granite boulders. Cox kept opening his eyes to check on Tingwall in the right front seat. As the fuselage snowballed, it began to disintegrate. Near the bottom of the slope, Cox opened his eyes again and Tingwall was gone. Then, Yamamoto was ripped from his arms. Finally, the sickening movement ceased.

Cox emerged into from the mangled fuselage and shouted for Tingwall. He heard a cry.

“Wes!” Cox stumbled up through the boulders with a broken ankle and badly injured leg. Somewhere higher up on the dark slope, Tingwall was lying in the rocks with a shattered pelvis and broken left leg, wearing nothing more than a thin flight suit as the blizzard-like storm intensified around them. He was shouting in pain, but Cox couldn’t see where he was.

Thirty yards from the fuselage, Cox came across Yamamoto’s body lying amid the boulders, and checked her pulse. She was dead—her skull fractured and her body crushed. Cox had taken off from the Santa Fe police hanger wearing nothing but a T-shirt and light police pants, and he was freezing, so he pulled Yamamoto’s orange ski jacket off her lifeless body and put it on.

Cox yelled for Tingwall again, and the response was fainter. Cox kept yelling, “Where are you?!” Soon, there was no more sound coming from the slope above him. Growing dangerously cold, Cox retreated to what was left of the helicopter. He had no light to help find his friend in the dark and, even if he were able to find him, there would be little he could do. With the storm bearing down, and rescuers many hours away, Tingwall was as good as dead.

It’s hard to question the actions of a hero. Especially one who gave his life selflessly, trying to help a stranger, and one who was well-respected and admired in the tight-knit police community. At age 35, with almost 14 years on the force, Sgt. Andrew Tingwall was a star police officer. He had been named Officer of the Year for saving a man from drowning by jumping into a flooded arroyo in 2008, an act for which he also was awarded the Police Medal of Valor. Friends say he was disciplined and kind, with a bellowing laugh and warm personality. He had been married to Leighann Tingwall for 11 years, and the couple had two young daughters. Last month, Tingwall was honored in a ceremony for officers killed in the line of duty, and received the Purple Heart for his actions in the attempted rescue of Yamamoto.

But in the year that has passed since the accident, two very different interpretations have emerged about Tingwall’s actions that day. It started with a report by the New Mexico Search and Rescue Review Board, a draft of which was released in March, that revealed Tingwall’s helicopter was never requested by search and rescuers, and landed illegally in the Pecos Wilderness during the rescue. But that report only hints at the deeply divergent perspectives rescuers and the police have privately held since the crash about Tingwall’s unusual role in the mission, made public for the first time here.

According to one view, held by State Police Chief Faron Segotta, Tingwall was the best kind of hero. When Yamamoto’s 911 call came in around 4:40 pm that afternoon, Tingwall quickly launched the state police helicopter, spotted her in the wilderness before other rescuers had even gotten their boots on and quickly picked her up. It was, from the chief’s vantage, a nearly perfect rescue marred by a tragic twist of fate.

“They found Ms. Yamamoto and were in the process of getting her off the mountain when they encountered the poor weather conditions,” Segotta says. “In my opinion, that was a successful rescue, at that point. The whole process up to there worked, just like it’s designed to work.”

However, a number of respected search and rescuers who were on the scene that day or are familiar with the details of the mission hold a starkly different view of Tingwall’s actions. Several experts interviewed for this story expressed concern that Tingwall’s heroism that day was not only brazen but unnecessary, and possibly counterproductive.

“I think Andy was a go-getter and his heart was in the right place, but his head was not,” Steve Crawford, who currently serves as the state’s top volunteer rescue commander, says. “I think what happened with Andy was, he had this drive, this type A personality to save people, and he had been over the years reinforced for that behavior. And I think he kind of did the same thing here.”

Even one year later, the state police and search and rescue volunteers assigned with conducting all wilderness rescues in New Mexico can’t address what went wrong that day, since they still can’t agree on the fundamental question behind the accident: Who was in charge of Tingwall?

Search and rescue missions in New Mexico are the responsibility of the state police. But because rescues can involve a high degree of specialized training and equipment to be done safely, the state set up a formal system that allows properly trained volunteer search and rescuers to run missions in the name of the state police.

When a 911 call from a lost hiker comes in, a state police officer calls a specially trained volunteer known as an “incident commander.” The incident commander is “responsible for initiating, alerting, assigning, and directing all SAR [search and rescue] resources participating on the incident,” according to the New Mexico Search and Rescue Plan, the state rules that govern how rescue missions operate. All rescuers communicate with the incident commander, who serves as a kind of conductor and directs hiking teams on where they should search and coordinates the locations to which aircraft should fly—ensuring searches are conducted efficiently and safely. “It’s critical to communicate. And it’s very important for a command structure to exist so the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” Dan Hourihan, president of the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), says.

When Gary Cascio, the incident commander who was placed in charge of Yamamoto’s rescue, reached the command center near the Santa Fe Ski Basin at 7:39 pm, he was shocked to learn that Sgt. Tingwall had already been flying over the wilderness looking for her for over an hour— despite never having been requested by the search and rescue authorities.

And even after the incident base was set up and a formal search and rescue mission was underway, Tingwall never fell into the standard chain of command. He continued to operate the mission on his own, deciding for himself where and how he should search. He never communicated directly with Cascio and relied on his dispatchers to occasionally give updates to the command team that was assembling—and eventually decided for himself that Yamamoto needed to be immediately airlifted out of the woods.

“There wasn’t any operational control of the helicopter,” Emergency Services Chief Ken Phillips, the head of search and rescue for Grand Canyon National Park, and one of  the nation’s leading search and rescue experts, says. “That’s extremely unusual.” To Cascio and the ground command team, it appeared the police pilot had taken charge of the rescue himself.

“It was almost like we were doing our little ground mission and they were doing their little air mission, and there wasn’t much between us,” Cascio says.

Tingwall’s lack of communication with the command team may have been partly due to terrain—the mountains can block radio signals between a helicopter flying deep in the Pecos Wilderness and the incident command center near the Ski Basin. But a radio relay had been set up at Los Alamos at 8:10 pm, shortly before Tingwall spotted Yamamoto, which would have allowed him to communicate with the ground commanders. And at any time, Tingwall could have gained altitude or flown to an area where he could have reached to the command team by radio.

“He knew that the incident commander didn’t even know he was there,” Charley Shimanski, president of the Mountain Rescue Association and another one of the nation’s leading authorities on search and rescue operations, says. “I think that would warrant his wanting to take an extra couple of minutes and fly to an area where he has radio contact so he could let them know what was going on.”

If communication is impossible, according to NASAR President Dan Hourihan, then the pilot has the discretion to decide how to conduct a rescue. But if Tingwall had the ability to communicate with the command team, Hourihan says, ideally he would have used it.

“It’s not up to the pilot, if there’s communication, to take action. They can express their opinion, and ultimately the tactical decision is made by the command post,” Hourihan says.

The state police see the same situation very differently. Chief Segotta maintains that Tingwall, being a state policeman, was actually in charge of the rescue and under no obligation to keep the ground commanders appraised of his whereabouts.

And at any rate, according to the chief, Tingwall had his hands full. “Andy was the only pilot on board. He could only talk to one person or area at a time.”

At 8:14 pm, when the two officers finally spotted Yamamoto waving her orange jacket in a small clearing, a third of a mile southwest of Spirit Lake, Tingwall didn’t call Cascio to inform him she’d been spotted, or ask how to proceed. Instead, Tingwall made the critical decision to land and pick her up himself. According to the radio traffic recordings, it appears no other options were considered.

“If you land at the top, can 649 [Officer Cox] walk down to get her?” dispatcher Leighann Tingwall asked.

“That’s about the only thing we’re going to be able to do, Leighanna,” Sgt. Tingwall responded.

Helicopters are considered relatively high-risk tools in mountain rescue. Thin air, unpredictable weather, steep terrain and a limited number of landing zones make flying difficult even for the best pilots. Among the National Park Service rescue teams, for example, more than half of all rescuer deaths occur in aircraft accidents.

That’s why helicopter evacuations are generally reserved for true emergencies in which a patient won’t survive long enough to be reached by hiking teams, or when the terrain rescuers would need to cross is too dangerous.

“Generally speaking, if it’s possible to evacuate a lost or injured party safely and efficiently by ground, it’s certainly a preferable way to do it,” Shimanski says.

In the Pecos Wilderness, where Yamamoto was lost, that’s also federal law. Helicopter landings in the congressionally protected wilderness are illegal except in extreme emergencies.

“It has to be a life and death situation,” Cascio, the ground commander, says. “It’s not to go in and pick up a hiker who’s tired.”

There’s limited evidence that Yamamoto was in an immediate life or death situation. In recordings of her 911 calls, she complained she was utterly exhausted, had no food or water and was getting increasingly cold, but she was also clearly lucid, stable and uninjured. Once on board the helicopter, Yamamoto would even ask to be delivered back to her camp at nearby Lake Katherine so she could rejoin her worried boyfriend, according to Officer Cox. Yamamoto appears to have been the kind of patient helicopters do not usually pick up. “It was a very high-risk rescue operation going on for a very lowrisk situation,” Phillips, the Grand Canyon rescue chief, says.

“That was what was really tragic.”

What’s more, there was another option: A team of six wellequipped rescuers on foot were assembling at the Ski Basin, and could have reached Yamamoto in two to three hours, by 11 pm or midnight. But since Sgt. Tingwall was out of communication, he may not have been aware of them.

“If the pilot doesn’t know ground resources are close, well, all sorts of problems come with the breakdown of communication,” Hourihan says.

The suggestion that Tingwall took an unnecessary risk by picking Yamamoto up does not sit well with Chief Segotta.

“The decision by the pilot to land—that was the quickest way to get her out,” he says. “The concern that Wesley and Andy had was she was not prepared for the weather that was rolling in and that she likely would not have made it through the night because the ground crews were nowhere near her and night was approaching. So that’s why the decision was made to do the landing.”

He likens the criticism of Tingwall’s actions to Monday morning quarterbacking.

“I disagree that there was no risk to Ms. Yamamoto. I believe there was a high risk to her had we not found [and evacuated] her.”

The search and rescuers and the state police even disagree about who should have been in charge of making the decision to land.

“The safety of the helicopter’s ability to land and take off is the pilot’s decision. But whether or not doing that at all is either prudent or warranted should be the incident commander’s decision, not the pilot’s,” Shimanski, the mountain rescue association president and author of several guidebooks on the use of helicopters in mountain rescue, says. “The pilot shouldn’t be the sole person deciding whether an air evacuation is warranted.”

Chief Segotta couldn’t disagree more. “Once that helicopter is up, the pilot in command controls that rescue. It’s that simple. It’s not the incident commander,” Segotta says. Segotta says his pilots may operate under an incident commander, like Cascio, or they can perform a rescue in whatever way they see fit.

“If the pilot gets up there and sees that he can make the rescue before anyone else, that’s what we do. We do that all the time. That’s not going to change,” Segotta says. “But I know that some people say, well, Chief, that kinda contradicts what the [New Mexico Search and Rescue] Act says. Not in the way that I interpret the Act.”

At 8:35 pm, 16 minutes after sunset, Sgt. Tingwall landed on a windswept ridge, as close as he could get to Yamamoto. The officers faced a new problem: Their landing zone was a halfmile away from where they spotted Yamamoto, and they had hoped she would just walk to the helicopter. But Yamamoto told the dispatchers she was too exhausted to move, and couldn’t hike up the steep slope to where the helicopter was perched. Tingwall decided to hike out into the storm to get

Yamamoto himself. He called his wife at the dispatch center.

“I’m going to walk down the hill. It’s going to start snowing here in a little bit and, if it does that, I’m going to have to get the hell out of here,” he said. The dispatch tapes capture the growing tension in Sgt. Tingwall’s voice.

At that moment, incident commander Cascio interrupted the call to ask for an update and coordinates on the helicopter. Leighann relayed the message to Sgt. Tingwall, who dismissed Cascio’s request as a nuisance.

“Well, you can tell him I’ll get it to him as soon as I can,” Tingwall responded. “Anyhoo, I’m going to walk down the hill a little way. I’m going to leave Wes with the helicopter. If you talk to her, tell [Yamamoto] to start blowing her whistle and listen for me yelling, OK?” “I will. I will. You do have a location, though, right?” Leighann Tingwall asked.

“Yeah, I know generally where it is,” Sgt.

Tingwall responded.

Tingwall turned to his partner, sitting in the idle chopper.

“Wes, if it gets cold, you—fucking—make a fire up here, dude,” Tingwall said. Then he returned to the line with Leighann. “I’m not going to spend a lot of time or we’re going to have two search and rescues,” he said. He was more prophetic than he knew.

When volunteers are trained in search and rescue techniques, they are taught never to go alone to search for a subject who is lost, especially when they might be out of radio contact.

It’s far too easy for them to become lost or hurt themselves, and distract the focus of the mission. But at 8:40 pm, with dark falling, Sgt. Tingwall set off into the woods—carrying no rain jacket, survival gear or even a radio—as the sleet intensified and a dark cloud bank settled over the mountains.

Tingwall clearly assumed it would be a short hike, but it ended up taking him 47 minutes, a period in which he couldn’t be reached by anyone, not even his dispatchers. (Chief Segotta tells SFR the department learned from that situation and, from now on, any pilot who leaves a helicopter on foot must bring survival gear with them.)

At about the time Tingwall left, Cascio called the dispatchers again and told them the ground teams would soon arrive at incident base, and could handle Yamamoto’s evacuation themselves.

“Tell Andy to be safe,” Cascio told Leighann Tingwall, “and we can go up and get her just as well. She might get a little cold, and it will be a little longer, but we don’t want him to get in trouble.”

It was a message that might have changed the outcome of the night, but Sgt. Tingwall never got it. Leighann immediately tried to call her husband’s cell phone, but there was no answer.

By the time Sgt. Tingwall returned to the helicopter, carrying Yamamoto’s 120-pound frame on his back, it was 9:27 pm. Night had fallen, and the officers hurried to get ready to launch. When another dispatcher, Sgt. Brandon Henderson, heard that Tingwall carried Yamamoto out of the woods on his back, he burst out laughing and ribbed pointedly with Cox. “Tell him that he’s just trying to get another Medal of Valor, isn’t he?” In the tension of the moment, the joke fell flat.

As Officer Cox strapped Yamamoto into a seat, Tingwall powered up the helicopter and pointed up to a small break in the darkening clouds.

“It just looked like, you know, how clouds break apart and just like—a valley through this little storm,” Cox told a crash investigator when interviewed three days in the hospital. “I didn’t think anything of it. I mean, heck, I’ve been on planes and helicopters before and [they] go right through the stuff.”

The break was what pilots called a sucker hole—a transitory patch of clear sky that lures pilots into the air, only to collapse and render them blind.

Tingwall didn’t have to risk threading it.

Once Yamamoto was back in the helicopter, her condition was not going to deteriorate, and the three could have waited until ground teams arrived, Shimanski says. “A helicopter is shelter. They could have brought her back to the helicopter and stayed there,” he says. And Tingwall had the equipment on board to spend the night there—a survival kit, including a tent, space blankets, extra food and water.

But Tingwall—with the experience of more than 800 hours flying helicopters, and having aced his way through a thorough mountain flying course the year before—decided to take off.

According to witnesses watching the helicopter from nearby Stewart Lake, he began to fly south, toward the lights of Santa Fe he could see in the distance, but then he turned around and headed north, toward the 12,000-foot mountains. At 9:37 pm, the campers heard a change in the pitch of the rotor blades, and watched the helicopter’s lights drop below a ridge. They saw a flash of light, and heard what sounded like an explosion. A half-hour later, they said, a cold, heavy rain began to fall.

Immediately after the accident, Leighann Tingwall left her position as a dispatcher and now works for the state Children, Youth, and Families Department. Cox fully recovered from his injuries and is now an agent with the State Police investigations unit. He also received the police’s Purple Heart medal for his actions that day.

Leighann Tingwall did not respond to a request for an interview. The state police rejected an interview request with Cox. Both Leighann Tingwall and Cox’s quotes in this story come from written testimonies or dispatch center recordings. This story also was reported from the handwritten communications logs kept by rescuers that day, and rescuer testimonies submitted to the New Mexico Search and Rescue Review Board and available as public documents. Attorneys for both Cox and the Yamamoto family (who could not be reached for comment) have contacted the state police, Segotta said, but no legal claims have been filed.

Cascio says the volunteer search and rescue commanders have devised new procedures for when to call out aircraft in missions, improved ways of communicating with incident base and now use the Tingwall accident to demonstrate to new recruits the importance of following the chain of command. They’ve even started devising a bag of survival gear they can drop to lost hikers so a helicopter doesn’t need to land unnecessarily. “No one has been sitting on their butt since the accident,” Cascio says.

The state government’s one paid search and rescue employee, James Newberry—criticized by the search and rescue community for his overall lack of leadership and laissez-faire attitude toward training incident commanders like Cascio—quietly resigned. His temporary replacement, State Police Sgt. Michael Valverde, began an aggressive campaign to better train those commanders.

Chief Segotta says the state police has made a number of changes to the way its helicopters fly for search and rescues, including new checklists for pilots to follow before takeoff and during emergencies, and a new program to train observers like Cox to serve on helicopters.

“I think we have done a tremendous amount of research and investigation to improve and enhance our operations, because the safety of everybody is paramount,” Segotta says.

At this point, Segotta says, there’s no need to scrutinize the Tingwall accident further. A complete analysis of the factors that led Tingwall to hit the mountain will be released by the National Transportation Safety Board this summer or fall. At press time, the New Mexico Search and Rescue Review Board was preparing to publish its own final report on the chaotic and fractious search and rescue response that followed Tingwall’s crash—and Segotta points to it as evidence that more scrutiny needs to be paid to problems on the civilian side of search and rescue, not the police side.

“I think when that final report is sent to me for review, I think it’s going to unfortunately show that the search and rescue community was dysfunctional. And that’s a shame,” Segotta says.

Ironically, that report centers on several volunteer search and rescue members who allegedly failed to follow the standard command structure during the mission, leading to chaos in the field later that night—the same charges leveled at Sgt. Tingwall.

“Have we learned things from this? Yes, we have. There’s no doubt,” Segotta continues. “I think because the report that’s going to be filed by the search and rescue community is very unflattering on the way that they handled it internally, that they want to focus, on ‘Well, the incident commander would have saved the day. None of this would have happened.’ That is totally erroneous. If I knew Andy was going to get killed up there that night, I never would have had him fly. I think that’s what going on with the incident commanders. [They are saying,] ‘Had I been in the loop, I would have told him not to fly.’ Well, you know what, it’s not your call. It’s the pilot in command’s.” SFR

 

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