Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Joe Schuengel was killed Friday doing what his ex-wife said was his true life's work.
The Highway Patrol helicopter Schuengel was piloting crashed on a side street in a Clarkson Valley subdivision just after 11 a.m.
"The Highway Patrol was his life," said Pat Difani, 48, of south St. Louis County, whose nine-year marriage to Schuengel ended in 1998. "He absolutely loved it, and he loved the people that he worked with. They were family to him."
Schuengel, 47, of west St. Louis County, was the only person in the Bell 206B JetRanger that crashed in the Kehrs Mills Trails subdivision. It plunged onto Horseshoe Ridge Road off Kehrs Mill Road, just missing nearby houses. No one on the ground was injured.
Schuengel, a 17-year veteran of the patrol, had been on a speed enforcement detail earlier in Jefferson County.
Two other state troopers had been with him in the helicopter for that detail, but Schuengel had dropped them off.
Authorities said he was heading to Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, a few miles from the crash site, to switch to an airplane to conduct aerial speed enforcement in Franklin County.
Spirit airport had called in a St. Louis County police helicopter to investigate when Schuengel disappeared from radar, said Spirit airport director John Bales. He said there were no distress calls before the crash.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Al Nothum said the cause of the crash was unknown. The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
The wreckage of the crash remained in the closed-off street several hours afterward.
Some witnesses said the helicopter seemed to be struggling before it crashed.
Poncho Grajeda, 40, said he was doing construction work at a home when he heard the helicopter's engine whirring before the aircraft plunged straight down.
Grajeda said he and about a dozen others who were nearby ran toward the crashed helicopter, which had not caught fire but was spilling gas and oil and was surrounded by shattered glass. He said he saw the motionless pilot strapped into his seat. Police showed up quickly to take over the scene.
"I try to pray for him," Grajeda, originally from Guatemala, said in broken English.
Several Ameren Missouri linemen who were also in the area said they heard a scraping noise and then a loud thud. When they got to the crash site, they found the flattened wreckage and the copter's detached rotor lying in a nearby front yard.
Joan Wilson said she didn't hear anything odd as she was making lunch at her home that backs up to Horseshoe Ridge Road, but out her window she saw "a massive flume of stuff going up in the air.
"I didn't even in fact know what it was because it came by so fast," Wilson said.
Wilson said the impact sent debris into the air "higher than the tops of the trees."
Wilson rushed through her backyard toward the crash, where she saw the wreckage in the middle of the road.
"It was eerily quiet," Wilson said.
One of her neighbors walked closer to the mangled helicopter and said the man inside was dead.
"I feel very badly for the victim, and it's just amazing it landed in the middle of the road," Wilson said. "I don't know if he could control that or if it was divine intervention."
Nothum choked up as he addressed reporters near the crash scene. His office at the patrol's Troop C headquarters in St. Charles County is next to Schuengel's.
Nothum said Schuengel had been a pilot with the highway patrol for seven years. As required, the 29-year-old helicopter was serviced every 100 hours, Nothum said.
"Joe was meticulous about this helicopter," Nothum said.
The aircraft was one of five highway patrol helicopters and Troop C's only chopper. Some of the patrol's helicopters are used conjunction with the Department of Defense for marijuana eradication, while others, such as Schuengel's, are flown for traffic enforcement and searches by air.
Schuengel assisted in searches for missing children in the area and often appeared at community events as a representative of the highway patrol.
He grew up in south St. Louis, graduated from Bishop DuBourg High School in 1981 and earned a degree from Ranken Technical College, said Difani, his ex-wife. He began his career as a technician for the Laclede Gas Co. for 10 years before joining the Highway Patrol.
Difani, a software programmer for the St. Louis County Police Department, said that when Schuengel was 30, he awoke in the middle of the night and told her he intended to become a state trooper.
"He was very determined," she said. "It was truly want he wanted to do, and he was happy doing it."
Schuengel also loved horses. He kept two — Rookie and Ranger — in Jefferson County, Difani said.
Schuengel was honored in 2004 after helping save a man who had been in a crash on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) in St. Louis the year before. According to the highway patrol, the man wasn't breathing and had no pulse when Schuengel pulled him out of his wrecked van. He administered CPR, and the man had a pulse and was breathing when paramedics arrived.
Schuengel was interviewed by the Post-Dispatch in 2005, when a reporter attended a "Citizen's Academy" at the highway patrol. He talked about the risks troopers face every day.
"When you get up in the morning and put on that uniform, you've got to be in the mindset that you're going to go home at night," Schuengel said at the time. "You're going to pull in the driveway, you're going to see your family."
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered on Friday flags at all Highway Patrol facilities to be immediately lowered to half-staff.
Schuengel is survived by his mother, two older sisters and a younger sister.
He is the 29th Missouri state trooper killed while on duty.
Other fatal helicopter accidents involving police in the St. Louis area include the crash on Nov. 19, 1993, in Jefferson County that killed St. Louis Police officer Stephen Strehl, 35.
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