Man recounts escape from helicopter water landing near Tampa’s Peter O. Knight Airport

Barely 90 minutes after he said he lost hope of making it out of the water, Hunter Hupp, 28, walked out of the Peter O. Knight Airport terminal wrapped in a white sheet. He said it still hadn’t hit him that he had survived after being trapped in a helicopter submerged beneath the water.

Hupp, his 62-year-old father, 59-year-old mother and the pilot, a 33-year-old man, were finishing a helicopter tour when they had to make an emergency landing about 200 yards from Davis Islands just after 5 p.m. Thursday, Hupp said. All four survived with no injuries.

They were planning to land at the airport when Hupp said he heard a popping sound in the rotor above his head. Tampa Police Department Lt. Daniel College said the helicopter had an engine failure. Hupp said the helicopter wasn’t going to make it back to the airport.

“I am pretty astonished that I am standing here to talk to you,” Hupp said in an interview at the airport.

Hupp arrived in Tampa from his home in Philadelphia on Saturday. The helicopter tour — flying out over Tampa and to the beaches before returning to the Davis Islands airport — was a Christmas gift. He said he’d never been in a helicopter, and his parents hadn’t, either — his dad is afraid of heights.

After their experience Thursday, Hupp said, they aren’t planning on getting into a helicopter again.

As the helicopter hit the water and began to sink, Hupp said he was caught under seatbelts and cords. He said he struggled to get out as his parents and the pilot escaped and made their way to the surface.

“I would have liked to be the third out,” Hupp joked.

Hupp said he began to give up, but he thought of his parents floating above him. He said he thought of what they would go through if he drowned, so he made one more attempt to get out of the helicopter.

Finally, he freed himself. Hupp estimates he was underneath the water for between 45 seconds and a minute.

Among the bystanders who helped rescue the family from the water was Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who was on a personal watercraft at the time.

The Tampa Police Department said in a news release it “is currently coordinating with local and federal agencies regarding the investigation and eventual recovery of the helicopter.”

Hupp said he had dinner reservations with his parents Thursday night. After they got back to shore, he said, those plans were canceled.

Instead, Hupp said, he was going to get takeout sushi and drink “all the bourbon.”

Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.