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SANTA FE, N.M. - A search and rescue commander had concerns about a state police helicopter landing in mountains near Santa Fe last year to find a lost hiker who died along with the pilot when the helicopter later crashed, according to a state report.
The incident commander initially managing the search mission, Gary Cascio, "stated that he was surprised that the helicopter was landing to recover the lost hiker" since ground crews were in the area, according to the draft report.
"Cascio stated that he had reservations about having a helicopter land in the wilderness and in addition the U.S. Forest Service had to give approval for the landing of an aircraft in the forest. The situation had to be a life or death situation," the report said.
The crash occurred after the helicopter had picked up the hiker, Megumi Yamamoto of Tokyo, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. Weather was deteriorating as the helicopter took off. One crew member survived the crash.
No Forest Service approval was obtained before the landing, and Cascio contacted the agency afterward. Cascio never had direct radio communications with the helicopter during the search for the hiker and "did not receive regular updates from dispatch regarding helicopter ... activity," the report said.
State police personnel prepared the report for the New Mexico Search and Rescue Review Board. The report made recommendations for improving rescue mission procedures, but it didn't look into the cause of the crash or the role of the helicopter in the rescue. The report did not indicate who authorized the use of the helicopter in the search mission.
Cascio did not have that power.
Lt. Eric Garcia, a state police spokesman, said Thursday that the report and public comments on it will be forwarded this month to State Police Chief Faron Segotta, who will decide whether changes should be made in search and rescue operations. The state police coordinates search missions.
Search team members and incident commanders, like Cascio, are trained volunteers.
The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to release a report on the cause of the June 9 crash. A report can take a year to 18 months to prepare, according to a spokesman for the federal agency.
The state report found communications problems during search efforts before and after the crash. Initially, the search was focused on the hiker but expanded after the crash to look for survivors.
Mountainous terrain made radio communications difficult between ground teams and the command post. Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures also hampered the search, and there were conflicts between command center officials and several search and rescue team members, who had questioned assignments for searchers in the field.
One search team member, in a letter that was part of the report, said poor radio communication prevented some rescuers from learning the crash survivor had been picked up by a National Guard helicopter.
"As a search team, we needed to know how many subjects we were looking for. This information was unavailable or not given for many hours causing great confusion in the field teams," wrote Andrew Simmons.
The helicopter flew in the mountains for several hours trying to spot the hiker, who had called authorities with her cell phone. Yamamoto became separated from her boyfriend during a hike on a camping trip.
Rescuers could not get her precise location from the calls.
On the Net:
New Mexico Search and Rescue Review Board report, http://tinyurl.com/ybclmme