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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Army investigators search for answers after helicopter crash that killed 3

Emergency responders at the site of a helicopter crash near La Grulla, Texas, not far from the border with Mexico, on March 8, 2024. Three people were killed and one was critically injured after a helicopter carrying National Guard members and a Border Patrol agent crashed in southern Texas on Friday while following people who were crossing the border with Mexico, officials said. (Verónica G. Cárdenas/The New York Times)

By Adeel Hassan and Carol Rosenberg

Army investigators on Saturday headed to the site where a military helicopter crashed in southern Texas the previous day, killing two National Guard soldiers and a Border Patrol agent.

A third National Guard soldier in the helicopter was seriously injured, according to Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. The names of those onboard may be released Sunday, the National Guard said.

The personnel were on a flight that was considered a routine mission near Rio Grande City supporting federal border operations, according to Joint Task Force North, the unit of the U.S. Defense Department that works with federal law enforcement agencies on the border.

The crash, which occurred in La Grulla, a small city of roughly 1,400 people in Starr County about 110 miles west of South Padre Island, was unrelated to Operation Lone Star, the border program led by the state of Texas.

The flight was “providing monitoring and detecting capabilities along that sector of the border,” Maj. Ryan Wierzbicki, a spokesperson for Joint Task Force North, said by email. All three people killed had been deployed to the southwest border since October, he said, adding that no one on the ground where the helicopter crashed was injured.

In a brief video of the scene obtained by Reuters, a smoldering heap of twisted metal is shown in an open field under an overcast sky, as what appears to be emergency workers run toward the aircraft.

The helicopter was patrolling the border and following people who were crossing into the United States illegally when it crashed, said Judge Eloy Vera, the top local official in Starr County.

Three of the people onboard were men and one was a woman, Vera said, adding that the Border Patrol agent had been stationed in Rio Grande City.

The investigation is being handled by the Army’s Combat Readiness Center at Fort Novosel, Alabama, formerly called Fort Rucker. The center, which deals with all Army aviation accidents, sends investigators and subject-matter experts to what the Army categorizes as “class A accidents,” or those that result in deaths, severe injuries and property damage of at least $2 million, or ones involving destroyed or missing Army aircraft.

Jimmie Cummings, a spokesperson for the readiness center, said investigators will take measurements at the site and recover the black box. The investigation can last weeks, he added, and typically involves examining the aircraft’s maintenance records and medical and personnel records of crew members.

The aircraft was a UH-72 Lakota, Joint Task Force North said. That model has served as the Army’s light utility helicopter since 2006, according to Airbus, the manufacturer.

President Joe Biden mourned the victims in a statement on Saturday. “These brave Americans dedicated their lives to protecting our nation,” he said, adding, “Our gratitude is profound, and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

The crash comes amid heightened scrutiny and political tensions involving the border, federal immigration policy and Texas’ attempts to stem the number of migrant crossings.

Overall, more migrants were caught crossing the southern border in the past year than in any other year since at least 1960, when the government started keeping track of the data. There were more than 2.4 million apprehensions in the 2023 fiscal year, which ended in September, and that represented the third record-setting year in a row.

The number of people crossing into the United States from Mexico declined by 50% in January from December, which had a record nearly 250,000 people, Customs and Border Protection said. But crossings typically dip in January.

Rio Grande City is about 15 miles west of La Grulla and has a population of 14,000. The city is the largest in Starr County, which had been a frequent crossing point for migrants.

The Trump administration had constructed steel segments as a border barrier to deter and redirect unauthorized crossings. The work stopped after President Joe Biden took office, but he has since reversed course. Separately, the state of Texas has also been slowly building its own barrier.

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