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Helicopter Crash in Gulf Kills 2
HEATHER ALLEN and CATHY ZOLLO Staff Writers
Herald Tribune
9/12/2007

Videographer and photographer were shooting boat when the aircraft hit water; pilot is in critical condition

Venice –A helicopter, flying low to photograph a model in a speeding Cigar Boat, plunged into the Gulf of Mexico near Casey Key on Tuesday morning, killing two photographers and critically injuring the pilot.

The helicopter's skids may have grazed the water, causing the aircraft to flip over and crash into calm Gulf waters about one mile offshore, said Lt. Chuck Lesaltato, spokesman for the Sarasota County Sheriffs Office.

Killed were Thomas Newby, 50, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., the chief photographer for Powerboat Magazine, and Mark Copeland, 44, of North Carolina, an Emmywinning video photographer.

The pilot, Mark A. Watters, 44, of Pasadena, Calif., is in critical condition at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

The crew was on assignment for Powerboat Magazine when the crash occurred at about 10 a.m.

Watters, who had 20 years of experience as a military helicopter pilot, was "one of the few pilots in the country capable of high speed-low altitude flying for racing photography," according to the Corona police Department in California, where he was a member of the air support unit.

Whether flying too low caused the accident will likely be a focus for investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, who arrived Tuesday night from Miami to take over the investigation.

The make and model of the helicopter were not released by authorities. The aircraft was not reclaimed from the murky waters in which it was submerged Tuesday. Divers from the Sheriff's Office marked off the area where the aircraft went down and will remove the wreckage today, Lesaltato said.

Dick Hendricks, executive vice president of Ehlert Publishing Group, which produces Powerboat Magazine, said the magazine has done similar photographic shoots four times a year for the past 35 years without incident.

"We haven't thought beyond canceling this one," he said. "We are working with (the NTSB) and the sheriff's department and trying to figure out what happened. Obviously, our thoughts are with the families and we are working with whatever their needs are."

One observer said Tuesday's accident gave off a loud boom that sounded like an approaching thunderstorm.

"I looked out there and saw the red boat," said Keith Warmkessel, who, details cars and boats on Casey Key. "The next thing I see is the sheriff's helicopter.

While ambulances and fire engines from a number of agencies zoomed down the length of the barrier island, trying to coordinate with one another, a harrowing rescue was under way in the Gulf.

Boats from the Sarasota Police Department, the Sheriff's Office, Florida Fish and Wildlife and the Coast Guard rushed to the crash site, while the sheriff's helicopter flew overhead looking for people in the water.

As the helicopter approached, those on board could see people in the water. Deputy John Jernigan strapped on a life vest and jumped into the water to assist with the rescue mission, Lesaltato said.

The victims were rushed by boat to the Crow's Nest restaurant near the south jetty on Venice island around 10:30 a.m.

Both Newby and Copeland died by the time they reached land, Lesaltato said. Watters was airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center.

The boat's driver and a female model were not injured and authorities did not identify them Tuesday. Debris from the helicopter hit the boat, causing some damage.

Gary Robb, an attorney who specializes in helicopter crashes, said the NTSB will closely examine the aircraft after it is pulled from the water, looking for possible mechanical failures. Among those is loss of the main rotor control, engine failure and component part failure.

"The NTSB will also look at the human factors aspect, which means pilot training, pilot performance, whether or not there may have been an error committed by the pilot," said Robb, who is based in Kansas City, Mo. "There are a number of factors which the government will assess."

About 80 to 85 percent of helicopter crashes are related to human factors, and 10 to 12 percent are material failures, said Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society, an industry group.

The sheriff's dive team will help recover the helicopter, which could be a long and tedious mission, said Deputy Kevin Deiter, from special operations.

The water where the helicopter went down is about 20 to 30 feet deep, Deiter said.

The sheriff's five divers were waiting on hand for NTSB investigators to arrive Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, families and colleagues were stunned by the deaths of the two photographers.

Copeland was a video journalist for a Raleigh, N.C., news station who started freelance work about 10 years ago. Copeland called home as Scud missiles rained down on him as he covered Operation Desert Storm.

And on Monday he called his mother to say he was going to be spending four days in Sarasota, where his father lived as a teenager.

"He loved doing it, he loved helicopters, planes," said his sister, Terry Copeland. "We're not believing it at the moment."

Herald-Tribune staff writers Todd Ruger and Zac Anderson contributed to this report.




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