Processions held for National Guard members killed in Mendon helicopter crash

Victoria E. Freile
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Three soldiers were killed in a military helicopter crash in Mendon Wednesday night.

A New York Army National Guard UH-60 medical evacuation helicopter crashed while on a routine training mission just after 6:30 p.m. in a field near West Bloomfield Road, between Cheese Factory and Boughton Hill roads, just southeast of Mendon Ponds Park.

The helicopter, also known as a medical Black Hawk, is based at the Army Aviation Support Facility at the Greater Rochester International Airport.

Witness to crash

Processions held for soldiers

UPDATE:National Guard members killed in helicopter crash identified

The families of the National Guardsmen have been notified, authorities confirmed.

The remains of the three soldiers were removed from the field midmorning Thursday and transported to the Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office in Brighton.

Numerous first responders took part in two multivehicle motorcades that escorted the soldiers through several Monroe County communities. Sheriff's spokeswoman Amy Young said that the first procession carried two soldiers and the second procession departed from Mendon with the body of the third soldier about 90 minutes later.

Neighbors stood at the side of the road, holding flags and showing respect as the motorcades passed.

"It was a touching and honorable time for this unfortunate event," Michael Fowler, chief deputy of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

Law enforcement personnel escort the bodies of National Guardsmen to the Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office in Brighton on Thursday.

Here's what we know about the fatal crash:

The crash

Investigators are shown Thursday on the scene of a fatal military helicopter crash that occurred Wednesday near West Bloomfield Road in Mendon,

According to preliminary 911 reports, "there were calls of sputtering sounds of an engine, and that the aircraft was flying very low, more low than normal," said Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter.

Shortly after the calls, there were reports of a crash.

The helicopter crashed into a field. While houses are located nearby, it did not appear that any buildings were damaged.

Mendon Fire Chief Peter Kester said the helicopter was on fire when first responders arrived at the scene.  

Baxter said authorities have been in contact with the control tower at the Greater Rochester International Airport, but have not reviewed whether those on board the helicopter were communicating with anyone in the tower at the time of the crash. 

The helicopter's flight path was not immediately available.

A National Guard spokesman said that soldiers routinely conduct training flights from the Rochester airport, both departing and returning to the site, as crews must maintain a certain number of flying hours each month.

The soldiers

The names of the three people killed in the crash were not released. Authorities confirmed Thursday that the three were the only people on board the helicopter.

The New York State Division of Military & Naval Affairs confirmed that the aircraft was assigned to C Company of the 1st Battalion, 171st General Support Aviation Battalion.

The unit includes about 80 soldiers, most of whom reside in the Rochester region, and is the air ambulance company that's based out of Rochester, according to the agency. Typically, he said, the airmen's job is to retrieve and evacuate injured soldiers.

"This is a very tight-knit unit," Baxter said, adding that a lot of people and family on Wednesday responded to the National Guard Center on the backside of the airport. "This is a heavy, heavy burden upon all of us."

A U.S. Army veteran himself, Baxter said, "These are our freedom providers just showing again that freedom is not free. We lost three great Americans (Wednesday) in the service of our country."

Fowler retired in May after 30 years with the Army National Guard.

“It is one large family," he said. "It’s very tough.”

"They’re more than just service members," he said. "They are members of our hometown community.”

The investigation

A military helicopter burns after a crash near West Bloomfield and Cheese Factory roads in Mendon.

A New York State Police helicopter assisted in the search for any potential survivors from the air on Wednesday night, hovering over the crash site.

The debris field extends "over what I'd describe as a few city blocks," roughly hundreds of feet in each direction from the crash site, Baxter said.

While the Monroe County Sheriff's Office secured the site and began to prepare evidence, the U.S. Army became the lead investigating agency Thursday afternoon, Fowler said.

“We continue to recognize that this will be a long-term joint effort," he said.

The helicopter

Developed by aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky, Black Hawk helicopters have been a part of the United States military since 1978, according to the U.S. Army website.

The UH-60 has the capacity to hold up to 2,640 pounds or 11 combat-equipped soldiers. It primarily serves as air support in situations like medical evacuation, air assault, general support and special operations in combat. 

In December 2019, three National Guard members were killed in a crash on a maintenance test flight in Minnesota. Aviation safety experts told the (Minneapolis) Star Tribunethat Black Hawks mishap rates are low. The Minnesota National Guard later determined that the crash was due to mechanical failure and human error.

Road closures

The intersection is blocked at West Bloomfield and Boughton Hill roads in Mendon on Thursday as offficials investigate the nearby scene of a fatal military helicopter crash.

West Bloomfield Road, between Cheese Factory and Boughton Hill roads are closed as authorities continue to secure the scene and prepare evidence. Detours are in place.

Inspectors from the U.S. Army are expected to arrive late Thursday night and early Friday morning, Fowler said. Expect the road to be closed through through at least Friday afternoon.

Contact Victoria Freile at vfreile@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @vfreile and Instagram @vfreile. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.  

Includes reporting by Natalia Medina Rodriguez, Georgie Silvarole and Tracy Schuhmacher.