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N.M. firefighter initially survived helicopter crash, called 911

Video, a 911 call and an incident report detail efforts to save the lives of Bernalillo County Fire Rescue Specialist Matthew King and Deputy Michael Levison


Photo/Bernalillo County Fire Department

Matthew Reisen
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When two State Police officers found the crashed helicopter in San Miguel County there were two men still breathing — albeit faintly.

“Matthew, Matthew! Can you hear me?!” Officer Alexis Garcia yelled at Bernalillo County Fire Rescue Specialist Matthew King. The 44-year-old was still strapped into his seat amongst the wreckage, his phone lying nearby.

Bernalillo County Deputy Michael Levison, 30, was lying on the ground a few feet away. Garcia pulled a large hunk of twisted metal off of King and frantically unstrapped him from the seat.

“Come on, stay with me, stay with me, bud,” he pleaded.

But, after several minutes of compressions, as Garcia tries to bring King back to life, both men were pronounced dead, along with the pilot, Undersheriff Larry Koren, 55, and Lt. Fred Beers, 51.

Lapel video, a 911 call and an incident report released to the Journal Wednesday afternoon paint a picture of the chaos on July 16 as officers tried to find the helicopter and attempt to save King and Levison.

Evidence photos depict the somber remnants of the crash site afterward — among them a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office badge, half buried in the dirt.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what led to the crash, which marked the single deadliest incident for law enforcement in state history and one of the deadliest for first responders.

The men had spent hours helping local firefighters near Las Vegas, New Mexico, with “bucket drops and other air logistics” as crews fought the East Mesa Fire. The helicopter took off from the Las Vegas airport around 6:30 p.m. as the men headed home to Albuquerque.

A rancher near Romeroville called 911 in a panic at 7:24 p.m.

“We just saw a helicopter crash land on the ground ... I don’t see fire, I see a lot of dirt,” a woman told the dispatcher. The woman tried to give directions to the site, which was near a river.

“We saw it crash and there’s a lot of dust coming up, there was a boom. It was coming in low, I was wondering what it was doing,” she said. "... It went straight into the ground and, yeah, it’s not good.”

Around that time, King called 911 as well, according to an incident report, and was “pleading for help” as he tried to get out of the helicopter. Garcia and fellow Officer Conrad Mares drove toward the site, using a map in their police vehicle to try to pinpoint the location.

“The male does not hear or see any of his crew members,” Garcia relayed to his partner. The officers arrived at a barbed wire fence and wiggled through it before they split up.

After a few minutes, Garcia spotted the wreckage and called Mares over.

“Can anybody hear me?” Garcia yelled as he approached the wreckage. On King’s phone, the dispatcher can be heard saying, “Hello. Matthew? Matthew,” as Garcia reached King.

Garcia became emotional as he radioed for help, trying to get a response from King and Levison. Mares took over giving directions as Garcia tried to free King.

“Come on, come on,” Garcia said, as he fumbled with many straps.

Over the next minutes, Mares tried CPR on Levison as Garcia worked on King, intermittently checking for a pulse and talking to him before first responders arrived.

“I kept on checking for a pulse, but it kept getting fainter and fainter,” Garcia wrote in an incident report. Garcia and Mares — both of them out of breath and solemn — then watched as first responders tried to save the men. King and Levison were pronounced dead shortly after.

Aerial photographs showed the helicopter slid more than 150 feet from where it hit the ground to its final resting place, the tail separated from the rest of the mangled aircraft. Evidence photos depict the aftermath, pieces of debris strewn about the scrub brush.

There were larger pieces of the rotor and tail — emblazoned with an American flag — bunched together. Scattered about the wreckage: a cellphone and a boot, a set of keys with a keychain with the words “We make it fly,” a handgun, a couple of helmets and two Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office badges, dug into the dry soil.


(c)2022 the Albuquerque Journal