updated 6/11/2009 6:38:20 PM ET 2009-06-11T22:38:20

The pilot of a state police helicopter and the student hiker he was rescuing were killed when the aircraft crashed on a snowy mountain near Santa Fe, officials said Thursday.

Sgt. Andy Tingwall perished after retrieving lost hiker Megumi Yamamoto when the chopper struck the side of a mountain Tuesday night in rough weather, state Police Chief Faron Segotta said.

Yamamoto, a University of New Mexico physics graduate student from Tokyo, was also confirmed dead earlier Thursday. Both bodies were found about 30 yards from the downed copter's fuselage.

The only other person aboard, state police officer Wesley Cox, sustained serious leg injuries but managed to hike to safety Wednesday.

Segotta said he'd flown many times with Tingwall, an experienced pilot who was effusive about his love for the job. Tingwall would sometimes reach over and clasp the chief's arm when the two men flew together.

"He'd say .... 'I've got the best job in the world,'" Segotta recalled.

Department, governor honor victims
Gov. Bill Richardson ordered flags flown at half-staff after he received word of the pilot's death.
"Sgt. Tingwall was a true hero, putting his life on the line while valiantly fighting to save somebody else's life," Richardson said in a statement.

Yamamoto, a native of Japan, has been in the United States since 2003, but had been at the university only since January, according to Ivan Deutsch, one of her professors. He described her as a quiet student who was just beginning her graduate work.

"It's a horrific story, so we're all extremely saddened here in the department," he said.

Rescue efforts had been hampered by snow, low clouds and wind Wednesday. But the weather broke Thursday, allowing Black Hawk helicopters to airlift searchers as close as they could to the wreckage to look for Yamamoto and Tingwall.

Just before smashing into the mountain Tuesday night, the sleek police copter, designed for just such high-altitude rescue missions, picked up Yamamoto after she become stranded while hiking.

Sole survivor treks to safety
Cox's right leg was crushed, his back injured. Soon, hypothermia set in. He hunkered down for the night inside the downed chopper with his pilot within earshot. Through the night, Tingwall and Cox alternately called out to each other.

When daybreak came Wednesday, Cox, badly injured and uncertain where Tingwall was, decided he needed to hike out for help, broken bones and all. He walked less than a mile before finding help and was rushed to a hospital with severe hypothermia.

Authorities spent the rest of Wednesday searching the mountains near the crash for signs of the pilot and Yamamoto, who had been camping with a boyfriend, also a student at the university.

Late Wednesday, two crews located the helicopter's fuselage and other debris that had been scattered down the mountainside. The chief said the debris field stretched about 800 feet in steep terrain.

The crash occurred northeast of Baldy peak in the Santa Fe Mountains, at about 12,000 feet, officials said. A crew of 18 people hiked through the night in an effort to reach the lower end of the debris field.

Flash of light
Segotta said information about the crash and details of the frightening night on the mountain came from Cox, 29, who remained hospitalized with a back injury, possibly a fracture, and a "seriously crushed" right leg, according to the chief. He also said Cox has some internal bleeding.

Tingwall, of Santa Fe, had radioed in his last radio transmission Tuesday night that he had hit the mountain.

Segotta said three campers near Lake Stewart saw the helicopter take off and fly around the north side of the mountain, then heard its rotors rev to a high pitch. They then saw a flash of light and heard the crash, he said.

The helicopter may have crashed into the mountainside after the tail rotor hit something and subsequently failed to gain enough altitude to negotiate a safe landing, he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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