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Unseen video: UHP helicopter nearly crashes; pilot saves the day

(Utah Department of Public Safety)


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SALT LAKE CITY — In the past five years, the Utah High Patrol has had roughly 500 rescues or recoveries across Utah. They happen high in the mountains, down in the desert and sometimes on very precarious land formations. But last fall, a routine recovery nearly took the lives of seven rescuers.

It was Sept. 8, 2015, and 43-year-old Kerry Crowley was just one hike away from reaching her personal summit. Crowley had 59 hikes under her belt and No. 60 was to be the crown jewel: Jacob's Ladder in Lone Peak.

"She felt like she was going to make it," said Kent Crowley, Kerry's husband. "This was it."

She was hiking alone that day, but when she didn't return home by that evening, a search-and-rescue team was called out to look for her. Instead of finding the wife and mom alive and well like they hoped, searchers discovered her body. It's believed she fell about 300 feet, but the only clues come from photographs taken from her camera, just moments before the accident.

"Where she was, there was only a small spot where they could get her," said Crowley's sister-in-law Debbie Brannelly. "It's a cliff. It's a big cliff."

Because of the terrain, it was determined the safest and most effective way to bring her body down the mountain was to send a UHP helicopter.

The pilot, Kent Harrison, had done this before, with dozens of perfectly flown recoveries and rescues attached to his name.

"This is something that's almost a weekly or monthly event for us — to get into this type of scenario," Harrison said. "This one just took a very dramatic turn."

Unseen video released to KSL shows the helicopter hovering over the recovery spot, with the blades spinning just feet away from the cliff face. And hunched over the edge of the cliff was a Salt Lake County Search and Rescue team, highly skilled and trained, carefully moving Crowley's body toward the helicopter.

"It was just in a really bad spot," said rescuer Ben Robertson. "A very precarious spot."

It happened in a matter of seconds. Cellphone video from two different cameras, shows the helicopter blades catch onto an orange safety rope. The rope isn't cut, but rather caught, and pulled by the blade. If that rope had made a full rotation, it would have wrapped itself around the main rotor and led to disaster. Instead, an almost impossible pitch and catch to the tail took place.

"We heard a cannon go off. It sounded like an explosion," Robertson said. "Next thing I know I hear a crack next to me and see the tail fly over our heads."

Even still, the rope caused major damage to the StarFlex, a piece of equipment on the main rotor.

"It literally snapped in half. It snapped completely off," Harrison said. "My first thought was, I need to crash this helicopter. I had no idea if the helicopter was going to fly for more than a few seconds at that point."

The video is proving it did.

Photo: Utah Department of Public Safety
Photo: Utah Department of Public Safety

Harrison somehow regained control, avoiding jagged rocks, and landed the broken chopper in an open field. At face value, it was a moment of experience and skill. But maybe, it was something more. A fraction of a moment where the blades lined up perfectly, a fraction that went from certain tragedy, to giving the pilot a fighting chance.

"He saved everybody's life that day, without question," Robertson said.

"We had a very unlucky moment, that was followed within a split second by a very, very lucky moment," Harrison said. "Which in my estimation, probably saved all five lives that were involved, is that little twist of luck."

There's a saying in life it's better to be lucky than good. For the family of Kerry Crowley, looking back, they may have had a little of both.

"She was, she was everything to me," said Katy Crowley, Kerry's daughter.

Lucky for the years they got to spend together, and the good that they witnessed from a group of strangers risking their own lives to bring home the one life, already lost.

"Just thank you for what you do," Kent Crowley said.

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Mike Headrick

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