Witnesses aid rescue of helicopter crash survivors

amphibious vehicle
Val Harmon (R) with Joseph Seipel and Justin Breaux, all of Boutte, on the amphibious vehicle they used to reach the victims of the helicopter crash in the marsh near where they live.

Crash claimed life of one man, injured two others

As Val Harmon prepared for a Sunday hangout at his house he took a moment to watch a helicopter fly into a nearby marsh and then heard “a crack and a bang … then hush quiet.”

It was about 10:30 a.m. Sunday in marshland off of Magnolia Ridge Road in Boutte.

Harmon, along with neighbors Joseph Seipel and Justin Breaux, all of Boutte, quickly knew what they were going to do.

They jumped on ATVs and headed about a third of a mile to the area, but couldn’t maneuver over the watery terrain so they returned to get Harmon’s father’s amphibious vehicle, an Argo, that could go just about anywhere. They resumed their search and followed the smoke that led them to the crash site.

In addition to areas where the water could be 12 feet deep, Seipel said it also had reeds and cattails five to six feet high that made it difficult to find the crash site.

“All around them was fire,” Harmon said. “It was really smoky.”

Remains of the helicopter that crashed in Boutte Sunday.
Remains of the helicopter that crashed in Boutte Sunday.

Although they dreaded what they expected to find at the scene, they surprisingly found the pilot, Kenneth Gestal, 38, of Florida, with a large cut over his eye, walking around near the remains of the helicopter. A passenger, Chance Mills, 33, of Missouri, who was severely injured, lay on the ground nearby. The three rescuers wanted to move the man, but agreed it wouldn’t be wise to do it with him complaining about pain in his back and not being able to feel his legs.

“You could see his bone was through the skin,” Harmon said of the injured man. “He was in pretty rough shape.”

A third man, identified as Ryan Lamont Cardwell of Watonga, Okla., was found beneath the wreckage and pronounced dead on the scene.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.

The helicopter crew worked for a company called Air2, which was contracted by Entergy to perform services on the Entergy transmission line right-of-way where the crash occurred.

“His landing gear got hooked under the wire,” Harmon said the pilot told him at the scene. “The rotors hit the guide wire and it all just went to the ground.”

Harmon said the man who died apparently was outside the helicopter or attempting to exit it at the time of the crash. The crumpled remains of the craft lay nearby.

“It was demolished,” Harmon said. “It was just mangled.”

When the paramedics approached, Harmon left on the Argo to get them and his two friends stayed with the injured man. They then attempted to extinguish the burning grass, which was getting closer to Mills. They also helped get supplies and a stretcher there, as well as brought the pilot to the staging area for help.

Nearly a hour later, all three rescuers were relieved by emergency personnel in airboats.

“We had to do what we could to get to the woods and go see,” Harmon said. “I’m glad we were there to help them. I don’t know how long that guy had before he went into shock. It’s not an easily accessible place.”

They don’t consider themselves heroes, but rather people at the right place at the right time. Their wives even helped, having assisted the rescue by directing emergency personnel to the crash site, which got help to the men sooner.

According to Breaux, “The goal was to do what they could do to help, and do what anybody else would do for us.”

Harmon added he knew firsthand what it felt like to be rescued after his boat sunk last year on Lake Pontchartrain.

“Can you imagine how agonizing it was to be out there waiting?” he said. “You couldn’t hardly walk through this stuff, hoping the grass holds you up when you walk. There was no way I could shrug my shoulders and leave those people out there.”

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