Tuesday, October 4, 2011

CBP helicopter crash under investigation

Gail Burkhardt

SAN JUAN — The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the Tuesday afternoon crash of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter.

No one was seriously hurt in the crash between Stewart and Alamo roads, south of Hall Acres Road.
The helicopter, which was assigned to CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, was “flying in support of routine border security operations,” according to an Office of Air and Marine news release.

A witness said the helicopter crashed after flying low to the ground, seemingly trying to land.

The helicopter, which was no more than 10 feet off the ground, tipped on its side and hit the ground, said Alejandro Carillo, an employee at Frank Schuster Farming, 1011 Military Highway. The chopper kicked up dirt and let out smoke, but there was no explosion.

Mitchell Whitney — the director of New Life Advance International, on Stewart Road, near the crash site — said he could hear the helicopter. It must have been flying low because he could not see it over the brush, he said.

“All of a sudden, I didn’t hear the helicopter and there was a loud thud,” he said.

Whitney and a friend drove on a golf cart near the field where the helicopter went down, but they could not see anything, he said.

About the same time as the crash, Border Patrol agents, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and Alamo police were chasing a driver suspected of carrying marijuana on South Alamo Road. CBP could not confirm whether the helicopter was involved in the chase.

“It looks like they were related,” Alamo police Chief Arturo Espinosa said of the two cases, but he added that he was not sure because CBP was handling the investigation.

About 1 p.m., Border Patrol agents saw a driver of a blue Dodge Ram pick up bundles of what seemed to be marijuana near the Rio Grande, said Agent Daniel Milian, a local spokesman for CBP. Agents began chasing the vehicle and asked for help from DPS and the Alamo Police Department.

The driver made an abrupt turn — trying to evade a DPS trooper — and rolled the truck over several times into an empty lot on South Alamo Road, north of Trinity Road. Agents then seized between 10 and 12 bundles of what appeared to be marijuana. The driver was taken to the hospital for observation.

Tuesday’s crash was not the first such incident for the Office of Air and Marine in the area. In 2007, Air and Marine pilot Clinton Thrasher died when his Cessna 182R plane crashed on a ranch just north of the Hidalgo County line. Thrasher, 32, was helping Border Patrol agents pursue illegal immigrants on the ground.


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