Marion County Sheriff’s Sgt. John Rawls, inset, was assisting another agency battle a wildfire close by when his helicopter crashed into Bay Lake Tuesday evening.
Photo credit: Marion County Sheriff’s Office
MARION COUNTY, Floirda — As Marion County Sheriff’s Office helicopter pilot Sgt. John Rawls recovered in a hospital following a crash on Tuesday evening, authorities worked Wednesday to get the chopper from a lake in which several alligators were spotted.
On Wednesday morning, Lt. Don Standridge, the agency’s aviation commander, said they had met with trappers to see if they could remove at least two alligators seen patrolling the lake so it would be safe for members of the MCSO Marion County Sheriff’s Underwater Recovery Team to enter the water.
Bay Lake, which local residents call Black Water, is off County Road 315 near Northeast 212th Lane, in the area of Fort McCoy.
Rawls, an experienced pilot, went down with the helicopter on Tuesday while he was assisting another agency battle a wildfire close by. After freeing himself, Rawls swam 50 yards to the shoreline, where he called for help.
More details of the harrowing ordeal came to light Wednesday morning during a meeting of the Marion County Multi-Agency Wildland Task Force, which was formed in response to the state’s worst wildfire outbreaks in 1998. The task force includes a dozen or so federal, state and local agencies that have expertise in battling wildfires.
Marion County Fire Rescue spokesman James Lucas, who attended the meeting, said that when personnel from his agency arrived at the scene on Tuesday, after Rawls had been taken to the hospital, he noticed a large gator between the helicopter and shoreline.
Preston Bowlin, who will become the county’s emergency management director when sheriff’s Capt. Chip Wildy retires next week, said it was amazing that Rawls was able to use a cellphone after the crash, especially with limited cell reception in the forest, as he swam to shore.
Rawls was listed Wednesday as being in stable condition at Ocala Regional Medical Center.
After the 2002 Bell Jet Ranger was pulled from the lake Wednesday afternoon, MCSO officials and divers provided a few details: The lake spans approximately five acres and is roughly 125 to 150 years wide; the depth is 12 to 14 feet; the temperature at the top was 78 degrees, at the bottom it was 60 degrees.
The Florida Forestry Service provided a bulldozer that cleared a path off NE 212th Lane for MCSO officials to use to get to the lake, for a distance of about a quarter of a mile.
MCSO had a jon boat and airboat on the lake. Their divers attached a 600-foot rope, from Stokes Electric, to the helicopter, which was pulled from the lake by the bulldozer.
Officials said there were several alligators in the lake. Choppers flew overhead during the retrieval mission, keeping an eye out for gators to help ensure the safety of the divers.
Late Wednesday, the crew was still working to get the copter to a location where it could be loaded on a vehicle for transport to the MCSO hangar.
The chopper was the newest of the three helicopters in the MCSO fleet. It was purchased in July 2015 from the U.S. Army for $3,000. Sheriff’s officials said it is considered a loss and to will replace it they will have to use money from their budget. They said the helicopter was carrying about 25 gallons of fuel in a sealed tank.
Contact Austin L. Miller at 867-4118, firstname.lastname@example.org or @almillerosb. Joe Callahan contributed to this story.
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