The Israeli naval officer who was the sole survivor to escape when the helicopter he was riding in crashed into the sea, said Tuesday that he tried multiple times to pull the pilots out of the aircraft but was unable to do so.
Capt. Ron Birman is recovering from a broken vertebra and mild hypothermia following the crash Monday night, which took the lives of Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani and Maj. Chen Fogel. An initial investigation has pointed to a motor malfunction bringing the chopper down into the cold Mediterranean off the coast of Haifa.
“I was able to get myself out of the sinking helicopter and then, after many attempts to get my friends Sachyani and Fogel out, I was rescued by a naval police patrol,” Birman said in a video statement released by the military.
Until now, Birman has not been identified by name.
In the video, recorded from his hospital bed, Birman sent condolences to the families of the two pilots who died in the crash after they were unable to escape the cockpit for as yet unknown reasons.
“I send a lot, a lot of strength and love to the families, to [Sachyani’s widow] Lilach… I love you, be strong,” Birman said, his voice breaking.
The helicopter went down just before 9 pm on Monday. An initial investigation found that the aircraft apparently suffered a malfunction in its left motor, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing at sea. Birman managed to bail out of the helicopter, but the pilots did not and were found by rescuers, lifeless, still strapped into their seat belts in the cockpit, a senior Israeli Air Force officer told reporters on Tuesday.
Birman was moderately injured in the crash and was taken to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center. He was initially treated in the hospital’s intensive care unit, but was moved to recover in an orthopedic ward on Tuesday after his condition improved, the hospital said.
He was visited by the heads of the Israeli Navy and Israeli Air Force on Tuesday.
“You acted bravely and calmly, I am glad you’re alive. You’re receiving excellent care. Come back to us fast, they’re waiting for you at home and in the squadron,” IAF chief Amikam Norkin told Birman.
Navy chief David Saar Salame lauded the officer, saying he “did everything he could and everything possible” to help the pilots.
The initial probe found that shortly after exiting the aircraft, Birman called the head of the helicopter squadron to inform him of the crash, as the motor malfunction also apparently caused a power shortage which knocked out the radio, preventing the pilots from calling for help.
“The squadron commander told him to stay calm and take care of himself,” IAF Brig. Gen. Amir Lazar told reporters.
The helicopter went down roughly an hour after it had taken off from Ramat David Air Base to perform a training flight. It was close enough to shore for onlookers in Haifa to clearly see it.
The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS565 Panther, known by the IAF as an “Atalef,” or bat, is specially designed for naval operations and is able to make emergency landings directly on the water with a built-in flotation device.
According to Lazar, this flotation system was activated by the pilots as they made the emergency landing and it deployed correctly, which allowed the naval officer to escape. “We don’t know why the pilots’ didn’t,” he said.
The helicopter was 25 years old, but was considered “very reliable” and had no history of mechanical issues, Lazar said.
One of the pilots, Fogel, 27, was buried on Tuesday at Haifa’s military cemetery in a ceremony attended by thousands, though the family requested that journalists stay away.
Ahead of the funeral, Fogel’s father Yaron described his son as “a charming young man, a smart, intelligent and sociable child, a man who never held a weapon.”
The other pilot killed in the crash, Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani was scheduled to be buried Tuesday evening at Misgav cemetery in northern Israel.
Sachyani, 38, was a married father of three. He served as the deputy commander of the Ramat David Air Base.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.