Search teams use buoys to mark the site of the helicopter crash Saturday morning in South Holston Lake near the Virginia-Tennessee state line. The search continues for the pilot of a helicopter that crashed into a lake Friday evening. Photo by Rick Wagner
ABINGDON — A low-flying helicopter over South Holston Lake is the norm on race weekend, ferrying people back and forth from Bristol Motor Speedway to a private residence adjoining the lake.
But the loud boom or thud heard shortly after 10:15 p.m. Friday night was not the norm, taking area residents by surprise.
The seven-passenger Bell helicopter owned partly by the Food City grocery story chain crashed upside down shortly after takeoff, a crash heard throughout surrounding campgrounds along the lake that straddles the Tennessee-Virginia line.
Crash debris floated to the Tennessee side of the lake that night, but authorities were still searching for the lone occupant, the pilot, late Saturday night. They would not identify the pilot other than to say he is male and lives in East Tennessee.
“We have a camper back behind here. We’ve been in the campground for years,” Kathy Brown said near her vehicle in the Washington County (Va.) Park.
Brown said she and her husband saw the helicopter land, let off passengers and then take off flying low at or about 10:15 p.m.
“I had just got the words out of my mouth to my husband that he looks awfully low and ‘ka-boom’,” Brown recalled. “At that point, we were in a state of disbelief.”
Others said they heard a woman from the shore yelling for someone to help the pilot shortly after the crash, but campers said they could do nothing. However, boats came in to try to help, and 20 to 30 minutes later Brown said the area was illuminated with the emergency lights of ambulances, rescue squads, fire departments and other law enforcement at the scene, as well as Virginia State Police MedFlight helicopters.
“The helicopter, a Bell 407, crashed into the lake shortly after takeoff from a nearby residential property. The corporate-owned helicopter had been ferrying passengers from the Bristol Motor Speedway to the residence. The helicopter had just dropped off the (six) passengers and taken off when the crash occurred,” according to a Saturday news release from VSP. “Only the pilot was onboard at the time of the crash.”
The VSP Search and Recovery Team dive members spent much of the night searching the wreckage for the pilot, according to a release that said the Sullivan County dive team joined that effort Saturday.
Two buoys, one orange and one yellow, marked the location of some wreckage from the helicopter Saturday afternoon.
Saturday morning, the SRT brought in a side-scan sonar to assist with the search for the pilot.
The depth of the water at the crash site is about 25 to 40 feet, and the Federal Aviation Administration responded to the scene Saturday, VSP officials said.
According to people in the campgrounds, the helicopter had just delivered a second group of people from Bristol Motor Speedway to the back yard of Steve Smith, president and chief executive officer of Abingdon-based K-VA-T Inc., the parent company of the Food City grocery stores. Food City was a sponsor of Friday night’s Food City 250 in the NASCAR Nationwide series.
Johnson City-based Channel 11 Saturday reported that the Federal Aviation Administration registry shows the helicopter registered to K-VA-T and W-L Aviation LLC in Abingdon and that it was made in 1996. Bristol, Va.-based Channel 5 reported it also was registered to Virginia Energy Co. of Bristol, Va., in 2006, and was certified in December of 1996.
“I heard it,” Jonathan Brown, son of Kathy Brown, said of the crash. Using binoculars after the crash, he said he and other campers could see the landing gear upside down in the water for a time. “After we saw the landing gear, (it sank and) we couldn’t see it any more.”
He said about 20 boats were on the water Friday night trying to help.
Fay Buchanan said she was out by a camp fire with her family when she saw the helicopter leave its second group of passengers at the home of Smith, who is well known in the campgrounds as a neighbor as well as head of the grocery chain.
“In 10 or 15 seconds, we heard the ‘pow.’ It was just actually a big thud,” Buchanan said.
“Race weekend it’s (the helicopter) constantly in and out,” Buchanan said. Buchanan and other campers said Smith has personally visited some of the campgrounds and is friendly and outgoing. She said that means she and others in the campgrounds were even more saddened by the crash for the pilot’s family and for Food City officials and employees who know the pilot.
On the Sullivan County side of South Holston Lake in Tennessee, Mike Lintz said he heard two or three booms from the lake in his camper at Waters Edge Campground and soon heard on a scanner what had happened.
“He comes right across my camper,” Lintz said of the flight path.
Tennessee camper Paul Carner said he heard “several pops and a boom” from the crash, while Jerry Boone reported hearing the booms.
“It sounded like a cannon going off,” said Hazel Presley, manager of the Lakefront Family Campground. She said she saw the landing gear upside down in the water about 10:30 p.m. and that soon pieces of the helicopter floated toward the campground.
“There were pieces of the helicopter floating on the lake last night. Some of them went out and got it,” Presley said, adding that renters at the campground turned all the parts over to authorities.
A man wearing a Food City shirt stood guard at the driveway to Steve Smith’s house, referring all media inquiries to the VSP and Sgt. Mike Conroy. Corinne N. Geller, public relations director of the VSP, said the search would continue until the pilot is found.