The chaotic scene on Roosevelt Lake Friday afternoon after a sightseeing helicopter crashed into the water at 150 miles an hour could have been pulled from a movie script.
As nearby boaters combed through the wreckage — money, pages from a flight manual, pieces of router, a purse, ball cap and a million pieces of flotsam — two men popped to the surface. Astonishingly enough, they were not only alive, but had apparently suffered only bruises.
Boaters pulled the men aboard and rendered aid.
Abruptly, a woman then bobbed to the surface— completely unconscious.
Charlene Brown, a retired Payson police officer, who witnessed the crash landing while fishing with her husband Tom just off the shore, was shocked to see anyone had survived.
“I couldn’t believe it, there is no reason why they should be alive,” she said. “How do you crash in a helicopter, sink and be belted in and still survive?”
Thanks to the quick action of boaters, everyone aboard the helicopter survived and only the woman passenger is still in the hospital, said Lt. Tim Scott with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
It is still unclear why the helicopter crashed, but officials suspect the pilot simply flew too low.
Brown said she heard the helicopter make a pass over the lake. Several minutes later it returned, this time flying lower and faster.
She said she turned to her husband to remark on how low the helicopter was flying when she heard the thunderous noise of the helicopter smashing into the water.
The helicopter, leased by Sky Blue Helicopters out of Scottsdale, had taken off from a Valley airport just before 2:30 p.m. with two foreign travelers, George Riedel, 64, and Julie Barba, 49, on board.
Pilot Fred Cleeves, 62, flew the Robinson R44 helicopter to Roosevelt for a tour of the lake.
Brown said she often hears small planes and helicopters over the lake. When she heard the helicopter go over the lake initially, flying from east to west, she thought nothing of it. Then 15 to 20 minutes later, she said she heard the helicopter again, this time coming from the west. This time it flew much lower and made far more noise.
When the helicopter hit the water, it sounded like a huge explosion in the center of the lake.
The copter crashed about 2:45 p.m. near the northeast end of the Cholla Boat Ramp, on the north shore of the lake, in an area known as Goose Flats, Scott said.
The Browns and two other boats rushed to the impact area and plucked the passengers from the water. One of the boats reportedly had a nurse on board.
Brown said she immediately called 911. She and her husband then started pulling personal items out of the water since the passengers were in another boat.
Tonto Basin Fire Department met the three passengers at the boat ramp, all of them conscious and talking.
Barba had the most serous injuries, Scott said.
Although they had just survived a helicopter crash, authorities determined they needed to airlift all three to Valley hospitals.
Doctors treated and released the two men. The woman remains in stable condition, he said.
The helicopter meanwhile remains at the bottom of the lake, 60 feet underwater, said Brown, who measured the depth with her fish finder and marked the location of the wreckage with an anchor buoy.
The sheriff’s office is working with a company that will retrieve the helicopter, perhaps today if everything goes according to plan, Scott said.
The sheriff’s office dive team will likely strap inflation bags to the helicopter to bring it to the surface. Crews will then tow it to shore or lift it out of the lake and onto a barge.
Scott said they can’t leave the sunken helicopter because it poses potential environmental risks and the National Transportation Safety Board wants to inspect the wreckage to determine the cause of the crash.
The last known aircraft to crash into Roosevelt Lake was roughly 20 years ago near Windy Flats, Scott said.
Brown said she is still shocked no one was seriously injured. Although she handed over the personal items she had collected from the water to the sheriff’s office, Brown said she forgot to turn over a baseball cap.
When she returned to the boat ramp, she said she found Riedel near the ambulance. When she handed him the cap she said his eyes grew wide in surprise.