40th anniversary of Department of Public Safety helicopter crash

Published: Oct. 2, 2023 at 10:25 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - On this day, 40 years ago, Tucson was in the midst of the worst storm on record. Entire neighborhoods were underwater after the Santa Cruz and Rillito Rivers overflowed their banks due to Tropical Storm Octave.

More than a half-foot of rain fell in just a few days, washing away homes, bridges, and lives. More than 850 homes and apartments were destroyed and another 2,000 were damaged. Close to 10,000 people were displaced, more than a dozen people were killed, and nearly a thousand residents were hurt.

Just when it felt like the tragic conditions couldn’t get worse, they did. On October 2nd,1983, just before 1:00 a.m., a Department of Public Safety helicopter crashed, killing the pilot and flight medic. Before the end of their watch, Thomas McNeff and Richard Stratman saved more than 30 lives on what turned out to be their last day.

Arizona Department of Public Safety Pillot Thomas McNeff and flight paramedic Richard Stratman jumped into action during the devasting floods of ‘83 in Tucson. They reported for duty early Saturday morning, October 1st, 1983, and flew all day into the night, rushing from one call to the next.

“They had been flying 11-12 hours that day,” recalls former DPS flight medic and retired fire chief John Fink, who worked closely with both men. Fink flew many missions on the same helicopter, Ranger 29, that crashed before he was transferred to Flagstaff, “it was devastating. I feel personally involved, that could’ve been me on that flight with Tom.”

Fink says the flying conditions were treacherous the night of the crash with severe thunderstorms, strong winds, and heavy rain causing zero visibility, but adds McNeff was an experienced aviator stretching back to his days as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, “Tom knew his stuff. I felt comfortable flying with Tom, felt secure, he was a safe pilot.”

Despite the dangers that fateful night, McNeff and Strattman forged ahead, picking up people from house top roofs and cars as the raging floodwaters threatened to wash them away, “I’m sure they were dead tired, but of course, when the calls come in, you want to help the people that need to be rescued,” Fink says.

It was non-stop until the last call of the night when the crew had to abort due to the worsening conditions. As they made their way back to the Tucson International Airport, radio contact was lost. A few hours later -- after the sun came up – an aerial search confirmed everyone’s worst fears; John Fink spotted the wreckage in a flooded cotton field in Marana, “we could tell from the air that it was un-survivable. The helicopter flew straight into the ground at a high rate of speed.”

At that horrific moment, Fink couldn’t help but think that it could’ve been him on board had he not been transferred to Flagstaff, “I thank my Lord and Savior every day that it wasn’t me, unfortunately, it was someone, it was Rick Stratman who was a great paramedic. So it was gut-wrenching.”

A maker on the Interstate-10 eastbound Frontage Road at the Marana exit memorializes the two crew members who saved dozens of lives before losing theirs, something John Fink hopes is never forgotten, “I’m sure all those people that they did save are so appreciative. They have their lives so they could live another day.”

Pilot Tom McNeff had been with DPS for eight years, was 36 years old and left behind a daughter. Flight Medic Richard Stratman had been a DPS explorer as a teenager and eventually followed his dream to become a DPS officer. He was just 27 years old.

According to the Dept. of Public Safety, the exact cause of the crash was never determined. The official report lists several possibilities, including pilot error, aircraft failure, and bad weather, with most believing it was the horrible flying conditions.

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