RATON, N.M. (AP) — Andra Cobb was frantic when she called for help, telling an emergency operator that a helicopter she was riding in with her father, longtime partner and others had crashed in a remote part of New Mexico and that she was watching her “family burn.”
Police released 911 recordings Friday from the crash near the Colorado-New Mexico line that killed five people, including Zimbabwean opposition leader Roy Bennett, and his wife, Heather. Cobb, 39, was the sole survivor, escaping with broken bones before the helicopter burst into flames.
Her father, Paul Cobb, the co-pilot, and her longtime partner, Charles Burnett III, a Texas-based investor who owned the ranch where the group of friends was headed, also were killed in the crash Wednesday, along with pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd.
“I’m watching my family burn in a fire,” Andra Cobb screamed on the call. “I don’t know what to do. There’s a big fire. I’m covered in gasoline.”
Dodd also called 911 before he later died. He told authorities immediately after the crash that there were three victims and three survivors — him, Andra Cobb and Roy Bennett, who was suffering from a head wound as authorities tried to determine their location.
Officials launched a search but said the response was slow because of the rugged terrain and lack of access. Andra Cobb remained on the call for about an hour as she waited for authorities to arrive.
Bennett’s death was met with an outpouring of grief in Zimbabwe. A white man who spoke fluent Shona and drew the wrath of former President Robert Mugabe, Bennett had won a devoted following of black Zimbabweans for passionately advocating political change.
Bennett, treasurer-general of the Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, previously survived a traumatic year in jail and death threats over his work.
He and his wife had traveled to New Mexico to spend their holiday with their friend Burnett, according to loved ones. The wealthy businessman was described as a fun-loving person who enjoyed entertaining, at times extravagantly.
Burnett’s friends Dodd and Cobb were experienced aviators who would not have taken unnecessary risks in the helicopter, according to the investor’s personal lawyer, Martyn Hill. Hill and Cobb’s wife, Martha, said the co-pilot had survived being shot down while flying a helicopter in the Vietnam War.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. Despite frigid temperatures, there was no indication of bad weather that night.
Authorities eventually found the wreckage engulfed in flames, which had sparked a grass fire.
Colfax County Sheriff Rick Sinclair told The Associated Press that he helped search the rugged terrain and that when crews found the wreckage, residents from nearby ranches were working to extinguish the blaze.
Two victims were found in the helicopter, and a third was found several feet away, he said.
Bennett and Dodd were alive but in critical condition when authorities arrived. One of them was so injured that he rolled some 150 feet (46 meters) to get away from the flames, Sinclair said. The other appeared to have walked an equal distance before collapsing.
“The will to survive from the guy that rolled is incredible because he was smashed up,” Sinclair said.
State police say one of the men died at the scene a short time later and the other died en route to the hospital.
Dodd said on his call that he had a broken pelvis and was trying to move away from the blaze. Andra Cobb also told a 911 operator that Dodd was “rolling away from the fire the best he can.”
She said the helicopter had been in the air for just three to five minutes after taking off from the airport in the small community of Raton. In the call, she can be heard weeping and telling Bennett to breathe.
“I’m very, very cold,” she tells the operator.
Hudetz reported from Albuquerque. Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant in Houston and Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.