Recovery efforts complete after helicopter crash

Published 5:33 pm Friday, December 28, 2018

By J.R. TIDWELL / Editor

Recovery efforts made in the wake of a helicopter crash into the Coosa River in Verbena on Nov. 16 are now complete.

A Bell OH-58 helicopter belonging to the Metro Narcotics Task Force based out of Columbus, Georgia, crashed into the river on the Chilton County/Coosa County border after snagging a power line.

The pilot was identified as 53-year-old David Hall, a former Columbus police officer who still worked part-time with the agency flying the helicopter.

A flight student from Auburn in his early 20s was also killed in the crash. The passenger’s identity was not released per family request.

Recovery efforts for the bodies were foiled by darkness on Nov. 16 and by a strong river current on Nov. 17. The bodies were finally recovered on Nov. 18.

The remains of the helicopter itself were brought up on Dec. 18 by the Chilton County Sheriff’s Office and a dive team from Calera.

“It was a pretty good bit of work,” said Sheriff John Shearon. “To start with, we had to get the people out of it. Divers from Prattville went down and got hung up. We had to cut one of them lose from the wreckage. After we got the pilot and the passenger out, one of the Pelham guys came up a bit too quick and ended up going to the hospital. He was OK.

“It has been an ordeal. It was down about 71-feet deep. You can’t see your hand in front of your face in that water, and I think the day the helicopter crashed the water was 54 degrees at the surface and 44 degrees where it sank. You also had the current. There were several issues to contend with.”

Shearon said eyewitness accounts confirm that the helicopter hit a power line causing the crash.

He also said reports indicate that neither the pilot nor passenger killed in the incident were likely to have suffered.

The helicopter wreckage was lifted using airbags and towropes before being hauled to the boat launch at Blue Creek for removal.

“It took maybe three hours to get it out,” Shearon said. “There was a lot of prep work that went into it. We went to the (Chilton County) Airport to ask Ken Gilliland, who has several of the same type of helicopter out there. They did a pre-dive the day before to check the hook points. We got a game plan of what to do.”

The helicopter had been on the way to the airport to be worked on by Gilliland before hitting the power line and crashing.

Shearon said lifting the wreckage from the river floor was one thing, but the actual removal was “something different.”

“We had to trek a couple of miles downstream,” he said. “We had all of that debris trailing behind, and once we got in the mouth of Blue Creek it started hanging up on different things, and we had to work it loose. It got hung up a couple of times before we got it up Blue Creek boat launch.”

All told, it took authorities from multiple agencies and even some civilian volunteers to recover both the bodies and the helicopter wreckage.

“I would like to thank all of the agencies and citizens that took part in the recovery effort,” Shearon said. “We couldn’t have done it ourselves. We greatly appreciate all the agencies that responded to help.”

Shearon said recovering the bodies meant a lot to everyone involved, especially since the pilot was another officer.

“We didn’t know him or the passenger, but they were still human beings,” he said. “We wanted some kind of closure for the families.”