Cause of helicopter crash that killed two Tenn. responders still under investigation, new details released

The NTSB has released their initial findings into the Marion County crash.
Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 7:24 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2022 at 1:42 PM EDT
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MARION COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) - The National Safety Board released their preliminary report Tuesday into a Marion County helicopter crash that killed two East Tennessee law enforcement officers.

In a press conference the night of the event, Tennessee Highway Patrol officials confirmed that one of their troopers and a Marion County Sheriff’s Office deputy died in the crash.

“While the investigation is ongoing, please give the families their privacies,” a THP spokesperson said. “Today is a very tragic day for law enforcement.”

Officials with the Tennessee Highway Patrol identified the victims in the crash as Sergeant Lee Russell with the THP and detective Matt Blansett with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.

Russell and Blansett were on an aerial mission in the Chattanooga area when the helicopter crashed, according to THP personnel.

“Our hearts are filled with sadness,” said THP Colonel Matt Perry. “As we navigate these difficult times, we ask that you please pray for their families, friends, and the men and women of the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. These men are heroes, and we will never forget them.”

The FAA told WVLT News that a Bell 206 helicopter struck a power line and crashed in a wooded area on Aetna Mountain near Whiteside, Tennessee, around 4:00 p.m. on Aug. 23. The NTSB report said the same thing, citing a witness statement.

“A witness was driving eastbound on Highway 24 toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he observed a “dark colored helicopter” headed westbound just north of the interstate,” the report said. “The witness was talking on the phone to his wife, and he told her how concerned he was that the helicopter was flying very low and near a set of powerlines.”

Dan Hostetler was heading back to Chattanooga on the interstate when he said he saw a black helicopter flying in circles, describing it as moving “erratically.”

“It kind of dipped a little bit and waggled a little bit then there was a bright flash of light and puff of smoke and it hit one of the power lines that went across the highway and sure enough the power lines started gliding down toward me and all I could think was it’s going to land on top of me,” Hostetler said. “I slammed on the brakes and stopped about 2 car lengths from the line.”

A Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson confirmed that the helicopter struck the power lines crossing Interstate-24 at mile marker 163, causing them to fall across the roadway.

Blansett and Russell were conducting a “marijuana eradication” mission that day, and after landing for lunch were called to assist in a missing persons case, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA was also assisting the NTSB investigate the crash.