Officials memorialize first responders killed in crash: 'They loved what they did'

·4 min read

Jul. 18—The photos displayed at the end of the somber news conference said it all.

In those images, four Bernalillo County first responders wore their uniforms and badges with pride as they posed alongside any number of small aircraft, including helicopters. They smiled as they stood next to colleagues, interacted with children, held puppies.

The pictures were haunting.

Law enforcement and rescue officials in Albuquerque spoke with admiration and heartbreak as they discussed the lives and deaths of Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers and Deputy Michael Levison and Bernalillo County Fire and Rescue specialist Matthew King, who were killed Saturday in a helicopter crash south of Las Vegas, N.M.

"All these people were dedicated. ... They loved what they did," Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said during a roughly 20-minute news conference held Monday in Albuquerque.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have not determined a cause for the crash, which occurred as the helicopter was returning to Albuquerque from an aerial bucket drop mission over the East Mesa Fire southeast of Las Vegas. The helicopter descended at a fast rate before crashing, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said.

Investigators will review flight track information to get a better understanding of the path the helicopter was taking on its way back to Albuquerque, Knudson said, adding officials are asking those with information to come forward.

Knudson said it didn't appear adverse weather was present in the area at the time of the crash.

"But we will look at everything as part of the investigation," he said.

Capt. Nicholas Huffmyer of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office said it could take "several months" to finish the investigation.

He said the wreckage from the crash of the Metro-2 copter will be retrieved in the next few days and "transported to a secure position for analysis as part of that investigation." TV footage of the crash site showed mangled pieces of the helicopter in two large sections on the piñon-studded landscape

The law enforcement and firefighting communities are taking the loss of Koren, Beers, Levison and King very hard, said Bernalillo County Fire Chief Greg Perez.

"This is the one area we are not professional in. ... We're not professional in grieving the loss" of loved ones, he said.

Huffmyer said the four men departed Double Eagle II Airport in Albuquerque Saturday shortly before 11 a.m. to attend a public relations event in the area. They left that event around 12:48 p.m. and then retrieved some kayaks left from a previous day's event on the Rio Grande.

After returning to Double Eagle II at 1:18 p.m., they departed a half-hour later to assist with bucket drops on the East Mesa Fire.

The crew performed about 20 bucket drops starting shortly after 3 p.m. The helicopter landed at the Las Vegas Municipal Airport to refuel at 4:19 p.m. and departed 13 minutes later to perform more bucket drops.

The chopper returned to the Las Vegas airport at 6:22 p.m. to refuel again and began heading back to Albuquerque.

"They considered their mission completed for the day," Huffmyer said.

Their last known location, at 7:18 p.m., was "just south of Las Vegas," he said.

Huffmyer said two officers from New Mexico State Police first responded to the crash site and tried to render aid.

"It's extremely disturbing to think about the scene they arrived on," he said.

Fellow law enforcement officers and firefighters lined highway overpasses as the bodies of the four men were brought to Albuquerque on Sunday. Many saluted as others held their hands over their hearts.

Gonzales, who did not take questions at the news conference, asked the public to offer prayers and condolences for the families and loved ones of the four men.

"We are going to stay focused on them and their families," he said, adding his department would reach out to the survivors to plan a memorial service.

Regarding the impact the crash has had on his personnel, he said: "We're concerned about our staff and our people."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.