Crews removed a helicopter from the Tennessee River on Wednesday, two days after it crashed into the water with four people on board near the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood, killing Knoxville businessman Joe Clayton.
A large boat from Knoxville Barge Inc. showed up near the scene around 10 a.m. Boats from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency cruised around the crash site for nearly three hours before the removal took place.
Crew members entered the water before the barge began removing the helicopter using straps and a crane. The slow and careful process ended around 1 p.m. when the helicopter was brought on board and carried away.
The Federal Aviation Administration has identified the aircraft as a Eurocopter EC-130. The FAA is investigating the crash with the National Transportation Safety Board, according to a news release on behalf of the Clayton family.
Joe’s brother and business partner, Jim Clayton, also was on board when the crash occurred and said in the release he is cooperating with both agencies. Jim and two other survivors, John McBride and Flynt Griffin, were rescued by a pontoon boat.
“I am very grateful to the emergency personnel who responded so quickly and professionally and to the caring couple on a nearby boat who gave assistance,” Jim said.
The crash was reported just west of Alcoa Highway near Lakeview Drive. Calls came from residents of the neighborhood along the river, Knoxville Fire Department spokesman D.J. Corcoran said.
Robert Crawford, a nearby resident, saw the helicopter descend toward the river and appear to hesitate before crashing.
The rotor blades “exploded” on impact, he said, and “hundreds of little pieces were floating in the water.” In the distance, he saw the heads of survivors bobbing in the water.
Rescue crews responded within 10 minutes and used underwater sonar devices to search for the fourth crash victim. Joe’s body was recovered by rescue crews around 9:45 p.m. Monday, roughly two hours after the crash and within a few feet of where the helicopter went down.
The Clayton brothers grew up in the western part of the state in rural Finger, Tennessee. As sons of a sharecropper, the brothers spent long days in the fields picking cotton, according to an article by Forbes.
Jim and Joe ended up relocating to Knoxville, where they launched an auto dealership in 1956, followed by a manufactured home company. The business split in 1981, with Jim taking the Clayton Homes business and Joe focusing on Clayton Volvo and other Southeast dealerships.
“My thoughts and concerns are totally for Joe’s family right now,” Jim said.
Officials have not shared who was piloting the helicopter. It’s unclear if the helicopter was landing or taking off when the crash occurred, Corcoran said.