Canada Markets open in 4 hrs 13 mins

‘It won’t go away.’ 30 years later, victims of WTVD helicopter crash are remembered

·5 min read

When a helicopter’s engines fail, it doesn’t glide to the ground. It drops.

And for Tony Debo, the fall from 1,200 feet to a pitch-black field south of Raleigh took just 10 seconds — twice as long if you consider the painfully slow passage of time during sheer panic.

When Debo hit, he found himself thrown clear of the wreckage, his right arm nearly severed from breaking through the windshield, his left ankle broken, most of his clothes torn off his body on a freezing December night.

Thirty years ago Tuesday, sports reporter Debo survived the crash that killed the rest of his WTVD crew: photographer Bart Smith, engineer Rick Sherrill and pilot Jim Lane. All four of them were engaged to be married.

In this 2011 file photo, former WTVD sports reporter Tony Debo poses in his home “sports office” where the walls are adorned with sports memorabilia from events he covered over the years.
In this 2011 file photo, former WTVD sports reporter Tony Debo poses in his home “sports office” where the walls are adorned with sports memorabilia from events he covered over the years.

‘I still remember everything’

They were flying home from a high school football playoff in Wilmington when the engine failed in midair. After three decades, the station remembers three men who died delivering the news, and the fourth who somehow walked away, clambering through winter woods toward a distant light bulb.

“It’s finally gotten a little easier,” said Debo, who was 32 at the time. “But to tell you the truth, I still remember everything. It won’t go away. It was so horrible, those 10 seconds. Durham was to the left, Raleigh was to the right, and we were just cruising along.”

Though it closed in 2019, the Newseum’s online memorial salutes more than 2,000 journalists who died while reporting. Smith’s picture, camera raised to his eye, is among them.

Former ABC11 employees held a 30-year small gathering Saturday, and Lisa McCosley, Sherrill’s fiance in 1991, made Christmas ornaments featuring all three of their departed colleagues.

A Christmas ornament celebrates the lives of Bart Smith, Rick Sherrill and Jim Lane, killed 30 years ago in a WTVD helicopter crash.
A Christmas ornament celebrates the lives of Bart Smith, Rick Sherrill and Jim Lane, killed 30 years ago in a WTVD helicopter crash.

In a phone interview, McCosley recalled meeting Sherrill at a blind date at a Christmas party, and how Lane had set them up. She remembered waiting up late on the night of the crash, only five weeks after their engagement, then getting the knock on her door. Most of all, this year, she remembered hearing Sherrill’s father answer the phone with a groggy voice when she made the terrible call.

Sherill wasn’t scheduled to work that night, she said. He went along because he was more experienced working a satellite truck. As McCosley put it, he “won that terrible lottery.”

Rick Sherrill, WTVD engineering technician killed in helicopter crash just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1991.
Rick Sherrill, WTVD engineering technician killed in helicopter crash just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1991.

She married in 1994, and her husband, Dan, believes he would have liked her former fiance.

“I miss Rick,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I miss Jim. I miss Bart. I miss the ‘what-could-have beens.’ I miss the graying hair and the later-life paunches and the skin that sags and the wrinkles that grow longer each year. I miss the smiles and the humor. I miss the decency of three good young men. And I miss the time before trauma became a permanent part of me.”

Shortly after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the helicopter’s engine had malfunctioned, but it later added pilot error to the report. Multiple victims’ families filed lawsuits against the helicopter’s manufacturer.

Bart Smith, 28, WTVD photographer killed in helicopter crash just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1991.
Bart Smith, 28, WTVD photographer killed in helicopter crash just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1991.

A freezing walk through the woods

But for Debo, the pain was just starting. Doctors told him on the night of the crash that the force of impact would likely lead to lasting injuries. He has undergone roughly 20 surgeries in the years that followed.

On the night of the crash, he fell several times in the dark and freezing cold, holding up his pants with his torn arm. He spotted a single lightbulb on a porch, and he followed it through the woods, sometimes losing sight but forcing his broken ankle to carry him.

“That’s all adrenaline,” he said. “None of us right now can say, “I’m going to push the button and get me some adrenaline.’ But it’s there. It knows when you need it.”

The front page of the News & Observer on December 8, 1991.
The front page of the News & Observer on December 8, 1991.

When he reached the house with the light, he found fresh terror as a large dog ran at him snarling.

“It wasn’t a poodle,” he said. “Just ready to fricking pounce on me and eat me alive. To survive all that, and be killed by a dog.”

But at the last second, the dog yanked backward. He later learned that the house’s owner had left it on a leash, which, like leaving a light bulb burning, she rarely did. Debo banged on the door, bleeding and half-naked in the middle of the night, until the woman finally answered and called for help, initially thinking he was a burglar.

The jump page from the December 8, 1991 edition of the News & Observer
The jump page from the December 8, 1991 edition of the News & Observer

‘Are you OK, Dad?’

After some weeks of recovery, Debo returned to work. But the station had triggers everywhere. Reporters and editors would be responding to some other crash, or he’d pass a plaque with his friends’ picture. He left the station in 2007 and followed his sons’ college baseball games: Brad with N.C. State University and Nick with UNC-Pembroke.

Sometimes, he’d see a helicopter crash on television and his sons would say, “Are you OK, Dad?”

“It’s a shame,” he said, “because I love James Bond movies. James Bond wouldn’t be anything without a helicopter.”

After 30 years, Debo said he feels as good as he’s felt since the crash, finding peace in the middle of anguish.

He kept going all those years, he said, for the memory of his friends — brothers in the news.

Jim Lane, WTVD helicopter pilot killed in helicopter crash just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1991.
Jim Lane, WTVD helicopter pilot killed in helicopter crash just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1991.
Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting