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35 years since 2 rescuers died in helicopter crash rescuing pregnant woman from floodwaters

Posted at 10:39 AM, Oct 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-03 13:39:45-04

This year it's Rosa, but in 1983 it was Tropical Depression Octave that brought historic rainfall to southern Arizona at this same time, 35 years ago.

The storm claimed several lives, including those of two dedicated public servants.

Anyone who lived through the floods of 1983 will never forget them. The rains came in torrents -- 12 inches in some places. Every major river in southern Arizona experienced the highest crest on record. Hundreds of houses washed away, 14 people drowned and numerous bridges collapsed.

Among those who died in the storm were two DPS officers in a rescue helicopter -- the pilot, 36-year-old Thomas McNeff, and the paramedic, 27-year-old Richard Stratman. They went down at night in a Marana cotton field.

DPS pilots John Fink and Denny Welsh, now retired, were there that day.

"Because the clouds were probably all the way to the ground, they had no visible horizon," Fink said. "They couldn't see which way was up, unless you're paying attention to your instruments, and just relying on your senses. You can get sideways, upside down, who knows what direction you're going. So with the looks of the skids, it just looks like they flew it straight into the ground."

Fink says he'd worked with McNeff before being transferred to Air Rescue in Flagstaff.

"Tom was a great pilot," Fink said. "I feel bad, because he was my pilot, and Rick took my place, so that should have been me. But for the grace of God go I."

Welsh had spoken to the two officers not long before the crash. In fact, he was set to relieve them after they had carried out countless rescues during an excruciating 18 hours in horrific flying conditions.

"And I said, 'Promise me you won't go out anymore,' and they said 'OK, we're done,'" Welsh said.

But when a call came in that a Catalina woman was in labor and had no way to reach the hospital, the pilots said they would take it. No one heard from them again.

One thing that came from the crash, there high standards set on all the crews, and there could be only ten hours of flight time and so many hours of set down time while you're loading patients or doing a rescue and where the aircraft wasn't actually in motion.

Today, you'll find a DPS memorial for McNeff and Stratman along I-10 in Marana -- two men who undoubtedly saved numerous lives before sacrificing their own.