SANTA FE, N.M. – The helicopter had just swooped in to rescue a stranded hiker in the rough mountains of New Mexico when nearby campers saw a flash of light, then heard a loud crash. Moments later, a dispatcher asked the pilot whether the three aboard were OK, and he radioed back: "Not really."
The sleek police copter, designed for just such high-altitude rescue missions, had smashed into the mountain, and the veteran pilot, his spotter and the hiker were thrown into the dark, frigid wilderness.
The spotter's right leg was crushed, his back injured. Soon, hypothermia set in. He hunkered down for the night inside the downed chopper with his pilot, Sgt. Andrew Tingwall, within earshot. Through the night, Tingwall and the spotter, Wesley Cox, alternately called out to each other.
When daybreak came Wednesday, Cox, badly injured and uncertain where Tingwall was, decided he needed to hike out for help, broken bones and all. He walked several miles before finding help and was rushed to a hospital with severe hypothermia.
Details of the harrowing ordeal emerged Wednesday as authorities spent the day searching the mountains near the crash for signs of the pilot and the hiker. The helicopter had been summoned to help the hiker after she became separated from her boyfriend on the mountain.
Officials feared that Tingwall and the stranded hiker, Negumi Yamamoto, did not survive, given Cox's account.
"At this point, information would indicate that we do not have any more survivors," State Police Chief Faron Segotta said.
Late Wednesday, two crews located the helicopter's fuselage and other debris that had been scattered down the mountainside, but there was still no sign of Tingwall or Yamamoto. The crash happened northeast of Baldy peak, in the Santa Fe Mountains, at about 12,000 feet, officials said.
Segotta said information about the crash and details of the frightening night on the mountain came from Cox, 29, who remained hospitalized with a back injury, possibly a fracture, and a "seriously crushed" right leg, according to the chief. He also said Cox has some internal bleeding.
"He is one tough kid," Segotta said.
Tingwall, of Santa Fe, had radioed in his last radio transmission Tuesday night that he had hit the mountain.
Segotta said three campers near Lake Stewart saw the helicopter take off and fly around the north side of the mountain, then heard its rotors rev to a high pitch. They then saw a flash of light and heard the crash, he said.
Searchers were hampered early Wednesday by snow and poor visibility near the area, which is about 15 miles northeast of Santa Fe. However, they were able to focus their search later in the day after getting stronger signals from the helicopter's emergency beacon.
Segotta said the helicopter carried food, water and an emergency blanket and that Tingwall was prepared. "Our pilots are trained for survival," he said.
The helicopter may have crashed into the mountainside after the tail rotor hit something and subsequently failed to gain enough altitude to negotiate a safe landing, he said.
Cox was thrown from the copter, then returned to it, Segotta said. He checked the vital signs of Yamamoto, but concluded that had she perished in the crash, the chief said.
The fact that Cox and Tingwall called out to each other through the night was encouraging news that indicates there's a slim chance the pilot could still be alive, Segotta said.
The helicopter is specially equipped for high altitude search and rescue missions, including landing and taking off at up to 15,000 feet and flying up to 20,000 feet, said state Public Safety Secretary John Denko. It was purchased in 2003.
Prior to the doomed rescue attempt, Yamamoto had been with her boyfriend on the mountain but they became separated, said Peter Olson, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. She used her cell phone to call for help Tuesday evening.
The boyfriend, whose name was not released, was escorted out with search-and-rescue crew; he had stayed overnight at a campsite. Police said Yamamoto is from Tokyo, and a student at the University of New Mexico.
Olson, who has hiked Baldy peak, said the trip to the top is arduous and said the area where the helicopter crashed is in "very rugged terrain."
Tingwall is a 13-year veteran of the force. He was honored with the Officer of the Year award for his efforts during an August 2008 incident in Albuquerque in which he helped save a man from a flooded arroyo.
In that incident, Tingwall and other officers were having dinner after their aircraft was grounded due to hazardous weather. They overheard an emergency dispatch about the man being caught in the nearby arroyo and responded. Tingwall spotted the man, rappelled down a step concrete wall and pulled the man from the water.