Two Perish in Gulf of Mexico Helicopter Crash

Two men died after their Bell-407 helicopter plunged into the Gulf of Mexico about 30 nautical miles east of Port Aransas last Sunday, authorities said. The three other passengers on the helicopter survived and were taken to a local hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas for treatment, according the U.S. Coast Guard.

The company that owns the aircraft has promised an investigation into the cause of the accident. The Bell-407 helicopter's pilot, Joe Ingle of Corpus Christi, died in the crash, as did Hector Vasquez. Survivors Rick Campbell and David Brasseaux suffer from hypothermia and were in stable condition. Mike Huckably, who was also at the hospital, was released Sunday, hospital officials said. Exposure to cold water for an extended period can cause hypothermia, according to medical sources.

"It's been a shock to us," said Arley Grimes, marketing director of Houston Helicopters, the aircraft's owner. "(Ingle) was in the helicopter business in excess of more than 30 years. He was well liked by everybody. He was friendly with all the pilots and mechanics and our customers asked him back when they flew with us. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families."

The helicopter was a 2000 model and was used by the company beginning in December 2000. It hadn't been having problems, Grimes said. The three survivors are lucky they were found, said Lt. Charles Cook, a pilot and public affairs officer for the Coast Guard in Corpus Christi. "You have no idea how lucky they are," Cook said.

The aircraft had sunk by the time the group was found Sunday and has not been recovered.

The Coast Guard received a distress call at about 12:20 p.m. from Houston Helicopter that the aircraft may have gone down on its way to an oil rig near Matagorda Island, Cook said.

In 15 minutes, two helicopters and another aircraft were in the air to search for the group, as was a cutter. The USS Gladiator, stationed at Naval Station Ingleside, also was diverted to help in the search.

One of the Coast Guard's helicopters found the three survivors and the helicopter in the area found the other two men. All were found about 30 nautical miles east of Port Aransas. The three survivors had been in the water for about two hours by the time they were found, and couldn't communicate because of the effects of hypothermia, Cook said. One Coast Guard official likened finding people in the water to trying to find a Tic-Tac in a bathtub. "You're looking for something extremely small in something extremely big," Cook said.

The U.S. Coast Guard says about two hours is the average time someone can survive when the water is this cold, about 59 degrees to be exact. These men were there out there for almost two and a half hours. What saved them were their life jackets, because they float, and because they're easier to spot in choppy waters. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ashton Levarek says, "There is a lot of debris out in the Gulf, there's a lot of whitecaps right now, waves breaking, so it's hard to see just the head and shoulders, so lucky for them, they had orange life vests, which made it a little easier."