Park Police helicopter crew rescues 4 civilians during Navy Yard shootings
WASHINGTON — As the rotors spun up to speed above the cockpit of the blue and white Bell 412 EP helicopter, Sgt. Ken Burchell realized he had a problem.
The radio in his U.S. Park Police helicopter couldn't pick up signals from Metropolitan D.C. Police teams storming Building 197 in the Washington Navy Yard just across the misty Potomac River. He could see the building from the tarmac but couldn't hear what was happening.
A shooter police identified as Aaron Alexis, 34, of Fort Worth prowled the building. SWAT teams needed aerial intelligence, and wounded workers inside the Naval Sea Systems Command building might need medical evacuation. Burchell didn't have time to fix the radio.
In the field surrounding the helicopter's landing pad in Anacostia Park, Metropolitan K-9 officer Kelvin Dyson and another K-9 cop were training their dogs. Burchell piloted the twin-engine helicopter over the fence and landed beside them. Rescue Technician Sgt. David Tolson, one of Burchell's two crew members, jumped out and grabbed Dyson — and his radio — and told him what was happening across the water.
Burchell, a 28-year veteran of the park police, flew over the smoking wreckage of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, his commanding officer, Lt. Simeon Klebaner, said. Park police helicopter crews train for flights into live-fire areas, but Burchell's crew never performed one, said the third crewman, Rescue Technician Officer Michael Abate.
Accustomed to surveillance, rescue and medevac flights, they took off Monday morning on something akin to a combat mission.
Burchell kept the helicopter low over the Potomac as Dyson relayed messages between the aircraft — call sign Eagle 1 — and his fellow D.C. officers in the building.
“Our first mission is to find the active shooter,” Burchell said.
When Burchell brought the helicopter over Building 197, the crew saw that four civilians and one or two SWAT officers had escaped to the roof. One of the civilians, a woman, “had been shot through the shoulder and had lost a tremendous amount of blood,” Burchell said.
They flew back across the river to pick up two SWAT officers at their hangar and returned to hover about 40 feet above the Navy Yard building's roof. Abate left the co-pilot's seat, secured his harness to the helicopter and leaned out the open side door, scanning the rooftop and ground through the gunsight of an M-16 rifle as Tolson lowered one of the SWAT officers to the roof in a rescue basket.
The officer and civilians loaded the wounded woman into the basket and Tolson began winching her back up, but before they brought her into the helicopter, Burchell flew clear of the scene, the woman dangling outside the aircraft in the open basket.
“We were clearly in what might be described as a hot zone,” Burchell said.
Once clear, Burchell hovered the helicopter again, and they brought her inside for the flight to MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
“I found her to be extremely brave, all things considered,” Tolson said. She remained composed enough to give the crew information about the shooting that they relayed to SWAT officers in the building, he said.
They returned to the building to drop off the SWAT officer and — “one by one,” Burchell said — pick up the other three civilians.
“They were incredibly well composed and extremely grateful, and we were glad to have them aboard,” Tolson said.
Washington Hospital Center listed the woman in fair condition on Tuesday morning.
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.