One of the first two men to reach the site of Wednesday afternoon’s fiery helicopter crash at the Birchwood Airport says the other was badly burned in a desperate attempt to save its pilot from the flames.
Anchorage police say Thomas Moore, 62, was killed in the crash at the Birchwood Airport at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. According to National Transportation Safety Board investigators, witnesses say Moore was apparently practicing hauling a sling load with the four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter, owned by Anchorage-based Global Positioning Services, at the time of the crash.
Lowell Knipp says he was near the helicopter’s crash site Wednesday afternoon. Knipp was inside a hangar when he says he heard a loud boom outside.
“We're next to the shooting range so you'll hear booms, but it wasn't like that -- it shook the whole building,” Knipp said. “I turned and looked out the windows and saw a little puff of black smoke just above the buildings there, and I knew something was bad.”
Knipp immediately ran for the helicopter, which was already on fire.
“The heat was pretty intense and I could get within about 3 feet now, and it’s just -- flames were coming out from underneath and everywhere,” Knipp said.
A mechanic, Paul Mallory, reached the cockpit first and tried to pull Moore from the flames.
“Paul arrived about 10 or 15 feet ahead of me and (Moore’s) feet were hanging out the front,” Knipp said. “Paul grabbed his foot to drag him out and then Paul’s hands were then on fire.”
Molten, burning rubber from the soles of Moore’s shoes had flowed onto Mallory’s hands, inflicting agonizing pain.
“Everything was so soaked with gas that when he grabbed his foot to pull him out, his shoe, sock all slipped right off,” Knipp said. “But now Paul's got a hold of this sopping-wet gas-burning piece, and it just stuck to his hands so he tried to rake it off in the dirt.”
Knipp turned to help Mallory, but the opportunity to save Moore was lost a moment later.
“I stopped and checked on him real quick, and then I turned to try and see what I could do -- and then something popped and (the helicopter) blew up again,” Knipp said.
Knipp says he wouldn’t call himself a hero, since “I think that everyone here would do that.” He reserves that term for the man who first reached Moore.
“Paul Mallory is really, he's, in my mind he's like a hero,” Knipp said. “He was -- he didn't think twice, he reached in and tried to grab him, fire or no fire, so he's got burns now -- they gotta take care of him.”
Mallory, a man who works with his hands, suffered severe burns to both of them -- including third-degree burns on his left hand -- during the attempt to rescue Moore. He was flown to Seattle for treatment Wednesday evening.
“He called me this morning and he's more worried about -- folks not worrying about him,” Knipp said, pausing in a moment of silence.
Channel 2’s Chris Klint contributed information to this story.