Forest Service helicopter crashes in Texas during shuttle debris search; two dead

Friday, March 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BROADDUS, Texas (AP) _ Investigators pushed through dense, rugged forest to find the site where a U.S. Forest Service helicopter crashed while on a mission to find debris from space shuttle Columbia. Two people died in the crash and three others were injured.

All five were aboard the chopper when it crashed Thursday in an East Texas forest, said Kim Pease, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Marsha Cooper, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said it was unclear what agency the two people killed were affiliated with, and their names were not immediately released.

The cause of the crash was also not immediately known.

William Dickerson, of San Augustine, said he and his nephew saw the helicopter fly overhead when it suddenly went silent, clipping some treetops as it fell.

``When we heard it, we knew what it had to be,'' he told the Lufkin Daily News in Friday editions. ``It was just like the motor went dead.''

The crash was disheartening for search crews and federal personnel. ``It's very hard for everyone,'' Cooper said. ``It's such a tragedy in East Texas, after losing the shuttle and the astronauts.''

There were seven forest service helicopters searching for debris in the area Thursday. Department of Public Safety communications operator Tonica Weathers said she did not know of any helicopter searches being called off because of the crash.

The crash site was accessible only from muddy, rut-filled stretches of trail. All-terrain vehicles were brought to the scene to assist emergency personnel.

Late Thursday night, crews were working with a bulldozer to clear a road into the forest. Large spotlights were brought in after dark as officials awaited representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The accident happened near Broaddus in the Angelina National Forest, in the southern portion of San Augustine County in East Texas. The chopper that crashed was a Bell 407, said FEMA public information officer Susie Webb.

Search crews have been scouring East Texas since the shuttle broke apart Feb. 1 as it re-entered the atmosphere. Seven astronauts were killed. More than 10,000 searchers have recovered about 42,000 pieces of debris.