SPANISH FORK — Friends and family of a Utah man killed in a helicopter crash in South America smiled through tears Tuesday night as they reminisced about an active and adventurous man whose primary concern was caring for his family.
Leon Bradford, of Spanish Fork, was among the seven people killed Monday when the heavily loaded, U.S.-owned cargo helicopter crashed in the Peruvian jungle shortly after takeoff.
Bradford's high school sweetheart, DeAnn Bradford, said the couple was prepared to work through anything together, even remarrying a short 18 months ago following a divorce. Leon Bradford, who preferred to be called "Lee," would work for about a month, then return home to his family.
"My whole world fell apart," DeAnn Bradford said, describing the call notifying her of her husband's death. "He is the center of this family."
DeAnn Bradford said she couldn't help but count down from the moment her husband left for each trip. He had set out for Peru on New Year's Eve.
"He always tells me I can't start counting until the week of him coming home," she said. "He was supposed to come home Jan. 30."
The Bradford men have a history working with aircraft. Lee Bradford's father was a military helicopter pilot, and the family has worked with private helicopter companies for years.
Shawn Reed, who met Bradford in a skirmish between their friends while the two were attending rival high schools, said his friend since youth wasn't content sitting still.
"He couldn't stand being in the house," Reed said, pointing out furniture in the house Bradford had built by hand. "If he was home, he was out in the garage building things."
Bradford, who grew up in Santaquin, worked as a load manager for Columbia Helicopters Inc., securing cargo and monitoring weight for choppers traveling between oil rigs, Reed said. His friend knew job was dangerous, Reed said, but Bradford enjoyed the work and focused on providing a comfortable life for his family.
The tandem-rotor Chinook BH-234 chopper, owned by Columbia Helicopters of the Portland suburb of Aurora, Ore., crashed near the provincial capital of Pucallpa, killing its five American and two Peruvian crew members.
The helicopter was under contract for petroleum exploration support, en route to a drilling location in northern Peru, said Todd Peterson, the company's vice president of marketing.
Michael Fahey, the company president, said the aircraft was carrying a sling load, an external cargo secured by cables. He did not specify the cargo.
Witnesses quoted in local media reports said the chopper lost control and spewed smoke before crashing.
The Pucallpa airport control tower had its last contact with the aircraft at 3:03 p.m., five minutes after takeoff, Peru's civil aviation authority reported, and controllers saw “a big cloud of smoke” four miles northeast of the airport.
A local police commander, Miguel Cardoso, told The Associated Press that three bodies were recovered Monday and three more on Tuesday, from inside the chopper's charred wreckage. He said the three taken to the morgue Monday apparently had jumped from the chopper, as witnesses reported.
“They have different trauma. It appears they jumped out of the helicopter out of desperation, because they have multiple fractures,” Cardoso said.
Bradford was among the five dead Americans identified by Columbia Helicopters. Also killed were Dann Immel, command pilot, of Gig Harbor, Wash.; Edwin Cordova, maintenance crew chief, of Melbourne, Fla.; Jaime Pickett, mechanic, of Clarksville, Tenn.; and Darrel Birkes, senior load manager, an Oregonian living in Peru.
The two Peruvians were co-pilot Igor Castillo and mechanic Luis Ramos, the company said in a news release.
Company officials said they had no immediate information on what might have caused the crash. They said a senior management team was headed to Peru to assist local authorities in the investigation.
Peterson denied reports in local media suggesting the aircraft might have been overloaded.
“I can say categorically that the aircraft was not overloaded,” he said, adding that the load list was destroyed in the crash but company officials had a good idea of what was on board and believe the Chinook, combined with its load, weighed about 47,000 pounds.
That would be 4,000 pounds less than its maximum gross limit. The helicopter weighs 21,000 pounds empty, Peterson said.
Contributing: Andrew Wittenberg