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Thursday, September 1, 2005

Editor's Notebook

James T. McKenna


Forgive that faint grin on my face up there to the right. It's completely inappropriate this month. There should be a picture there of me hanging my head.

I did a shameful thing at the recent Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. annual convention back in July in Reno, Nev. This is no off-color story about "what happens in Reno stays in Reno." If only that were the case. No, this is a genuinely shameful thing, and it's been eating at me since--as it should.

Five of us from Rotor & Wing had joined the crowd at ALEA's "Pig Pickin,'" that annual pork barbeque feast whose preparations are legendary. Everyone was well into their plates when we entered. After loading up ours and grabbing beers, we joined some officers from Phoenix at a table near the front of the room.

Just about then, the dinner's hosts--Wulfsberg Electronics, Heritage Aviation and FLIR Systems--took turns at the podium thanking us all for coming. Then FLIR began to present its 2005 Vision awards for innovative airborne police use of its infrared sensor systems.

The tales of the winners' efforts were impressive, and everybody had a few good chuckles as they were recounted. It had been a long day working the show or traveling, and everyone in our group seemed in the mood to cut loose a little. Towards the end of the awards, something happened among the five of us that made us do just that.

The particulars are irrelevant. Suffice it to say that it was the second occurrence in about an hour, and the coincidence put most of our little group into fits of laughter.

The timing could not have been worse, as I soon learned. Just about as we started laugh, maybe just before--I obviously didn't have a clue--the emcee had asked for a moment of silence for two Sacramento County, Calif. Sheriff's deputies. They'd been killed two weeks earlier in the crash of one of the department's Eurocopter EC120s, Star 6.

Deputy Joseph Kievernagel was returning from assisting on a burglary call. Deputy Kevin Blount was at his side as the observer. Deputy Eric Henrikson, an observer trainee, was in the back. Before resuming their patrol, they'd decided to check out a lake in the area where crowds had flocked that day, July 13, to escape the sweltering heat.

The aircraft was orbiting at about 500 ft. agl over a small hill when something happened to the Turbomeca Arrius 2F engine. Kievernagel broadcast several "maydays" and reported his aircraft was going down. He struggled to control the aircraft and get it safely on the ground. The aircraft hit a 60-deg. slope and did several snap rolls. Dry grass on the hillside was set afire--probably by fragments of Star 6's melted free-turbine blades.

Kievernagel, 36, was a 17-year veteran of the Sheriff's Dept. He leaves behind his wife, Iris. Blount was 30 and had been on the job nine years. He was single. He's mourned by his father and mother, Thomas and Kathleen, and, undoubtedly, countless friends and colleagues, as is Kievernagel.

A week after the crash--that would have been the day before the Pig Pickin'--several thousand uniformed officers joined the friends and families at a memorial service for the deputies. More than 600 law enforcement vehicles, in a procession several miles long, escorted to their final resting places. (Henrikson survived the crash with serious injuries. He was hospitalized for a month.)

At the Pig Pickin' the next night, I'd been in belly laughs a while, as had my colleagues, when I realized the rest of that big, full hotel ballroom was silent. One of the Phoenix officers at our table, I learned later, was a friend of the deputies. I don't know if he'd been at the memorial service. I don't know how he resisted punching me.

Now I grew up in family of beefy, burly guys who didn't talk much or show much emotion other than laughter and anger. Yet, for as long as I can remember, tears would be brought to their eyes by "Taps," the slow, sad drum roll of a mute bagpipe band or the sight of scores of uniforms abreast, with white-gloved hands snapped to silent salutes--even if they were distant sounds from a TV set or images frozen on a newspaper page.

The men I was raised around were Marines, sailors and ex-paratroopers who became cops and firemen, choosing to put their lives on the line every single day. There were too many occasions for "Taps"--though for men and women like that and those around them, one occasion is too many. I count myself among people like that. So the thought that I dishonored Kievernagel, Blount and Henrikson and, by my actions, gave the appearance of Rotor & Wing dishonoring them is . . . well, I'm ashamed of myself.

I didn't know any of the deputies. That doesn't matter. They put their lives on the line every day to protect others, and they paid the ultimate price. The fact that they did so apparently because, among other things, someone installed a fuel component upside down in their aircraft's engine makes their deaths that much sadder. They were heroes who got caught in the wrong spot at the wrong time. They don't deserve to have some ass laughing while their memories are being honored, nor do their families and friends. Nor do you, our readers.

To the families and friends of those officers, to everyone at the Pig Pickin' and at the ALEA convention, to the officers at our table, and to the readers of this magazine, law officer or not, I say "I am truly sorry."

I don't believe there is anything more I can say.

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