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Students First on Scene of Helicopter Crash

Thomas R. Karlo--The Tech
Firefighters examine the wreckage of the state police helicopter that crashed into the Harvard Yacht Club, across Memorial Drive from the Sloan School of Management.

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Editor in Chief

Members of the Physical Plant rescue team and two MIT students were the first on the scene of Wednesday's fatal state police helicopter crash at the Harvard Yacht Club, directly across Memorial Drive from the Sloan School of Management.

All four passengers - two state police troopers and two telephone company technicians - were killed in the crash. The aircraft hit the pavilion at 9:33 a.m., just minutes after it took off from the state's Nashua Street helipad, en route to the state police air wing headquarters in Norwood.

"I was just outside of the Sloan Building [E52] on Memorial Drive," said Paul S. Sidhu G. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw the helicopter about 100 feet in the air coming down fast, and it slammed hard into the sailing pavilion."

"It looked like a totally uncontrolled crash," Sidhu said. The aircraft landed about three-fourths of the way upside down, he said.

Sidhu, another Sloan student, and members of the rescue team forced their way into the pavilion and used a ladder to get onto the roof, where they found the passengers already dead, he said.

The helicopter was flying in a westerly direction about 400 feet above the Charles River when it suddenly banked to the right and descended at a 45 degree angle, according to eyewitness reports.

No distress calls were transmitted by the pilots, according to the state police.

Dead are troopers James Mattaliano, 33, a 12-year veteran from Sandwich, and Paul A. Perry, 39, a 14-year veteran from Salem. The two civilian passengers in the crash, employees of AT&T, were Arthur T. Howell, 47, of Malden, and Michael McCarthy, 46, of South Weymouth. Funerals for the troopers will be held on Saturday; other arrangements had not been finalized at press time.

The Harvard Yacht Club, at 45 Memorial Dr., is one block farther away from Massachusetts Avenue than the MIT Sailing Pavilion. Damage estimates are not yet available, according to a Harvard spokeswoman.

The accident is under investigation by the Massachusetts State Police, the Middlesex County District Attorney, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission.

At a press conference yesterday at Logan International Airport, an NTSB representative would not speculate on the cause of the crash. The damaged aircraft will remain for the time being in a hangar at Logan, but will likely be transported to a facility in Texas for an extensive examination, according to a state police spokesman.

The aircraft was not carrying a flight recorder. The state police own one other helicopter similar to the one in the crash, an American Eurocopter 350 AStar.

Students first on scene

Sidhu, who flew in helicopters when he served in the army, said the crash looked uncontrolled. Normally when an engine fails, an auto-rotation mechanism takes over that "allows you to have a semi-controlled crash," he said.

Right after the crash, Sidhu and John J. DeSarbo G ran across Memorial Drive to the pavilion, closely followed by members of the Physical Plant rescue team that happened to be training in the area. "I was across the street in 10 seconds and they were right behind," Sidhu said.

The copter "fell completely apart as soon as it hit the building," DeSarbo said. "It hit right on the front cockpit. It looked so terrible."

"I didn't think there was any way" anybody could have survived, DeSarbo said, but he and the others attempted to get onto the roof anyway.

Finding the doors to the pavilion locked, "three of us broke down both of the doors, and we went inside the building and looked for some access to the roof," Sidhu said.

Inside the pavilion, DeSarbo said he "looked up and you could see that there was a hole in the ceiling" and "no way to get back on to the roof" from inside. Sidhu found a step ladder which they took outside, he said.

The students and rescue team members assisted other rescue team members onto the roof to try and extract the bodies from the wreckage, and when more people were needed, DeSarbo also went on the roof. The air smelled heavily of gasoline, he said. "There were bodies beneath the helicopter and gas everywhere."

A third Sloan student, Eric B. Swergold G, "ran across the street with a couple of fire extinguishers, and we passed those up to the people on top," Sidhu said.

One of the rescue team members, after checking the bodies and finding them dead, said "we've gotta get out of here" because of the danger of a fire, and the group left the roof, DeSarbo said.

The Campus Police reported that gasoline from the copter spilled into the Charles River. The aircraft did not catch fire at any time.

"By that time there were lots of firefighters and police in the area," and the students left the area, Sidhu said. About five minutes elapsed between the crash and the arrival of DeSarbo and the rescue team members on the roof, he said.

Cambridge and Boston police and fire departments responded to the accident, as did the state police and the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to a state police press release, the rotor of the helicopter was not turning at the time the aircraft struck the roof.

However, DeSarbo said he is "pretty sure that the engine was on" when the copter hit the pavilion. In fact, DeSarbo said that to him, "it looked at first like it was going to land."