ST. LUCIE COUNTY — A St. Lucie County Sheriff’s helicopter searching for a possible accident victim on Interstate 95 near Okeechobee Road crashed early Sunday afternoon after a strong gust of wind caused it to spin, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The pilot, Deputy Shawn Sullivan, was airlifted by another helicopter to Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute in Fort Pierce. He was treated and released from the hospital, said Sheriff Ken Mascara, who spoke with Sullivan shortly after the aircraft went down at 12:48 p.m. near the northbound on-ramp.
Sullivan was the only person on board the helicopter.
The chain of events started about 12:15 p.m., when the driver of a Chevrolet sport utility vehicle northbound on I-95 lost control while changing lanes. According to a Florida Highway Patrol accident report, the SUV overturned three times before coming to rest on the western paved shoulder of the highway.
The driver, 60-year-old Kathy Damico of Port St. Lucie, was taken to Lawnwood by ambulance with serious injuries. She was charged with careless driving, the FHP report stated.
The sheriff's helicopter was called to the accident as there was a concern another passenger, possibly a child, may have been ejected from the vehicle.
The sheriff’s helicopter began looking for the child — it was later determined the driver was the SUV’s sole occupant.
Mascara said Sullivan told him a strong gust of wind caught the aircraft’s tail, causing it to go out of control.
Witnesses said the helicopter, one of three used by the sheriff’s office, dropped straight down 20 to 25 feet.
It came to rest upright in the grass median on the west side of the northbound on-ramp.
“We saw him spinning and hit the ground,” Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Kevin Ale said. “In my opinion, the pilot did a great job under the circumstances.”
The helicopter’s cockpit and cabin appeared intact, but its tail boom was bent and its rear rotor sheared off.
The two crashes closed northbound I-95 at Okeechobee Road until shortly before 2 p.m.
The northbound I-95 on-ramp at Okeechobee Road remained closed Sunday afternoon and FHP expected it would remain closed for about six hours.
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were notified of the helicopter crash and will investigate.
Sullivan has been a St. Lucie County sheriff’s deputy for one year. He is an experienced pilot in both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, according to the sheriff’s office.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.