WOODLAND, Wasatch County — Authorities say the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that crashed into a mountainside Wednesday near Silver Meadows Lake is lucky to be alive.
The MH-60T Jayhawk, with a crew of four men and one woman, was returning with another Jayhawk to North Carolina from Washington state, where they had been deployed for a joint U.S.-Canadian security operation as part of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was last heard from just before 10 a.m.
About 20 minutes later, emergency dispatchers received their first call about the crash. One of the crew members involved in the crash used a cell phone to send text messages requesting help from the other Jayhawk in the area, which was not aware of the accident, said Wasatch County Sheriff Todd Bonner.
"The second helicopter had continued on, but got a text message to come back," Bonner said.
Search and rescue teams from Wasatch and Summit counties reached the site by snowmobile more than an hour after they were notified. Bonner said the teams described a debris field that covered 500 feet on a mountainside with a 25-degree slope and pieces of helicopter suspended 80 to 100 feet in the air by pine trees.
"They're very lucky people," Bonner said. "He must've been one heckuva pilot."
The Coast Guard identified the pilot of the downed helicopter as Cmdr. Patrick Shaw. Also on board were Lt. Cmdr. Steven Cerveny, flight mechanic Edward Sychra, rescue swimmer Darren M. Hicks, and basic aircrew member Gina Panuzzi.
Shaw and Panuzzi suffered internal injuries and were flown from the scene — both in critical condition — by the second Jayhawk to University Hospital in Salt Lake City. Shaw was listed in critical condition Thursday; Panuzzi underwent surgery and remains in critical condition, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Cerveny, who suffered a broken leg, was flown by medical helicopter to University Hospital where he was listed in serious condition. Sychra and Hicks appeared to be uninjured, the Coast Guard said. They were taken to a hospital as a precaution, however, and were listed in good condition.
Capt. John Hardin, commander of Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina, where the helicopters involved in Wednesday's incident are based, said none of the injuries were life-threatening.
Coast Guard Lt. Steve Talick said the helicopters had stopped Wednesday in Salt Lake to re-fuel before heading on to Kansas City, where they would stay overnight before flying on to North Carolina.
Coast Guard officials were first notified of the crash by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which picked up a signal at 9:55 a.m. MST from a personal locator beacon.
"The PLB is a distress button on the search and rescue vests worn by the air crews," said Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Jeremy Blanton.
A Coast Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft from Sacramento, Calif., was in the area transporting personnel and equipment from the Olympics security operation to the East Coast. Its crew remained in the area to aid coordination and communication during the rescue, the Coast Guard said.
Although the cause of the crash remains unknown, Bonner said weather may have been a factor.
"Visibility, due to snow and wind, was minimal," he said, adding that the pilot probably couldn't see the mountainside "until it was just too late."
A Coast Guard mishap analysis board was expected to arrive in Utah Wednesday night, and Talick said it will seek assistance from the "appropriate agencies" in its investigation.
Contributing: Diana Mazzella, The Daily Advance (Elizabeth City, N.C.)