A Black Hawk helicopter performing training exercises on the Texas A&M campus crashed on takeoff Monday afternoon, killing one and injuring four Army guardsman on board.
No students were on the aircraft, but the jarring accident gripped many in the Aggie family, especially as news spread that the person who died was a 2008 A&M graduate -- Zachary Cook.
Col. William Meehan, a spokesman for the Texas Army National Guard, said the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade based out of Austin had been shuttling members of Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets between College Station and Camp Swift, a former prisoner of war camp in Bastrop County. The exercise was one they've done with the ROTC program for more than 20 years without incident, he said.
Meehan said the guard unit -- which recently returned from serving in Iraq and is "highly decorated" -- was on one of five helicopters being used to transfer 190 students in what's called the Winter Field Training Exercise on Duncan Field just off George Bush Drive.
Scot Walker, whose campus office overlooks the field several hundred feet away, had been watching the helicopters come and go throughout the day -- exactly one week before classes were set to resume for the spring semester.
"At first, it looked like he was hot-dogging and then very quickly it was obvious he was in trouble and not messing around," Walker said of the crash that took place just before 3 p.m. "As fast as your brain could process that it crashed, it was like, holy cow, did I just see that?"
Debris from the five-ton Black Hawk littered the field and nearby street for at least 100 yards out. While someone barked the order to stay back, some cadets, along with military personnel and passersby, rushed to the aid of those onboard. A few bystanders reached for their camera phones to capture images of the twisted pile of steel.
Two flying in the guard helicopter remained in critical condition late Monday at the College Station Medical Center. Another was taken to a hospital in San Antonio and his condition wasn't known, while the fourth man injured was listed in serious but stable condition in College Station.
Friends said Cook, who received his commission last year, died at St. Joseph Regional Health Center. His relationship to the mission wasn't immediately clear, but officials said he did not serve with the guard unit in Iraq.
Meehan said that the military could not release information about the victims until 24 hours after family members were notified.
He said the deadly crash was a first for the Texas National Guard.
Dropped straight down
Witnesses said they saw five helicopters -- all Army UH-60 Black Hawks -- taking off and landing on the field throughout Monday. They were participating in what's called Rudder's Rangers Annual Winter Field Training.
Walker, publications manager for the A&M Association of Former Students, said he saw the two helicopters lift off from the field before 3 p.m.
The first took off with no problem and he lost sight of it as it headed toward the central part of the campus. The second followed shortly after but appeared to lose control and quickly began spinning.
"All of the sudden he dropped straight back down into the ground," he said, estimating that it was no more than 100 to 150 feet in the air when it encountered problems.
Walker said the vehicle dropped upright, but that pieces of propellors and debris jetted out in all directions.
"There was a bunch of people on Duncan Field and everyone went running and diving for cover," Walker said. "I grabbed the phone and called 911."
The helicopter never caught fire, but did terrify the dozens who witnessed it fall from the sky.
Within minutes, emergency crews were on scene from throughout Brazos County and the last victim was removed from the wreckage less than 30 minutes later. While the eight agencies involved in the rescue efforts regularly drill for events such as this, Bart Humphries, spokesperson for College Station Fire Department, said it marked the first fatal helicopter crash they've responded to.
"The crews are well-schooled in how to handle these things and I think they proved that," he said, referring all questions about the incident to the military investigators. They were not available late Monday.
While those investigators from the U.S. Army made their way to College Station to begin an inquiry that will include the National Transportation Safety Board, cadets who participated in the exercise gathered at area hospitals to await word about their mentors.
The students are members of Rudder's Rangers and were participating in a three-day event, though it was unclear how far into the training they were.
Most of the Rudder's Rangers had left College Station starting at 9 a.m. and were shuttled by the helicopters to Bastrop, officials said, adding that one squad remained on campus. Those students were taken to the third floor of the Military Sciences building to meet with university personnel following the crash.
The Rudder's Rangers has been a division of the Corps of Cadets since 1970. They specialize in training members to become members of the U.S. Army Airborne, Air Assault and Rangers. The group aims to develop leadership qualities in members and focuses on small-unit tactics. It was named after James Earl Rudder, a former A&M president and decorated war hero who retired as a major general.
Meehan said the students already in Bastrop will be driven back to campus.
University officials said that students were never in immediate danger, but the school sent out a Code Maroon text message and e-mail warning people to avoid the area. Throckmorton and Lewis streets on campus will be shut down pending further notice, officials said.
Krista Hudson, who works for A&M's Transportation Services and is retired from the military, said the sight of a downed Black Hawk was unsettling.
"I was in the military for four years and I never saw or heard anything like that," she said. "It was like a bomb went off. When that much steel hits the ground, you feel it."
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