3TV, ABC 15 news choppers collided in mid-air killing 4 a decade ago

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (Source: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(Source: A.J. Alexander, Associated Press) (Source: A.J. Alexander, Associated Press)
Covering those who cover the news: The Arizona Republic/ captured the raw grief of 3TV photographer Adrian Campa, reporter Tess Rafols (left) and reporter Mike Watkiss, all of whom were at the scene that day. (Photos used with permission) Covering those who cover the news: The Arizona Republic/ captured the raw grief of 3TV photographer Adrian Campa, reporter Tess Rafols (left) and reporter Mike Watkiss, all of whom were at the scene that day. (Photos used with permission)
The remains of NewsChopper 3 are in the foreground. (Source: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) The remains of NewsChopper 3 are in the foreground. (Source: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

July 27, 2007. It started like any other summer day in the Valley of the Sun. Little did anybody know that it would turn out to be anything but ordinary. When all was said and done, Phoenix had lost four veteran journalists and one young police officer in two separate tragedies.

It started with a carjacking and police chase in central Phoenix. It was coming to an end in the area of Steele Indian School Park. Every major news outlet in the city was covering it. The Phoenix Police Department’s helicopter was over the scene and all five television stations had their choppers in the air. Until two of them didn’t.

It happened in an instant. It was 12:46 p.m.

The news helicopters from 3TV and ABC 15 collided in mid-air. Both went down in the park, each one carrying a pilot and a photographer. Scott Bowerbank and Jim Cox from 3TV, and Craig Smith and Rick Krolak died in the crash.

Channel 15 was live on the air at the time. Just before the signal was gone, Smith could be heard saying, "Oh, geez!" the picture then broke up and quickly switched back to the anchor. It was not immediately clear what had happened.

Because the cameras in all of the news choppers were pointed at the action on the ground, viewers did not see the actual crash. A haunting photo by an Associated Press photographer, however, shows the helicopters plummeting to the ground. Many people say that photo is reminiscent of 9/11.

[SLIDESHOW: Remembering the four newsmen killed in the 2007 chopper crash]

Because of where the choppers went down, in the open space of the park next to the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center, nobody on the ground was injured.

“All of us in this community have had a special loss today,” then-Mayor Phil Gordon said.

In the hours and days after the crash, Phoenix turned the wall at the entrance to Steele Indian School Park into a memorial, covering it in signs, flowers, cards, candles and flags.

"We drove by the park and there were all sorts of flowers there and I said, 'Wow! This just happened,'" Cox's father, Alan Cox said on the eve of the 10th anniversary. "Then when we went to the station there were flowers and emails and food and money. People were giving money for the parents of the pilot and my son."

"The community outpouring, the support that the community gave us was just phenomenal," Krolak's son, Colton, said. "The cards that everybody left, that were left at Indian School Park were just so needed and I just, if I didn't  take the time during that time to say thank you to everyone I'd like to say it now because it was  instrumental in helping us."

"It's a terrible thing that happened but the love and support was [sic] kind of incredible and something I'll never forget," Cox's sister, Leslie, said. 

The incident shook the city to its core and changed the way 3TV and CBS 5 uses its chopper to report the news. More on that in a minute, because life was not yet finished with Phoenix that day. Not by a long shot.

Another tragedy

Hours after the choppers crashed, while many TV stations were still dissecting what happened, there was a robbery at a west Phoenix check-cashing store.

Officer George Cortez Jr. was shot and killed by a man he was in the process of arresting for trying to cash a forged check. Cortez was 23.

That man, Edward James Rose, pleaded guilty to the fatal shooting and was sentenced death in 2010. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence in 2013. Rose is one of 116 men and two women currently on Arizona’s death row.

While the two incidents are in no way connected, they are inextricably linked in the city's collective memory. 

To say it was a difficult day is an understatement of epic proportions, but it brought people together the way only shared grief can.

Aftermath of the crash

Back to the chopper crash.

The suspect in the crimes the helicopters were covering when they crashed, Christopher Jermaine Jones, pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated assault related to the police chase. He also pleaded guilty to auto theft, unlawful flight and failing to stay at an accident scene.

A judge sentenced Jones to 25 years in prison. He did not face charges in connection with the chopper crash.

As for the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that both pilots failed to see and avoid the other.

"Contributing to this failure was the pilots' responsibility to perform reporting and visual tracking duties to support their station's ENG operation," the report reads. "Contributing to the accident was the lack of formal procedures for Phoenix-area ENG pilots to follow regarding the conduct of these operations."

In the wake of the crash, 3TV and CBS 5 took action to make the pilot-reporter role a thing of the past. Today our pilot focuses strictly on flying. That's his only job. Any live reporting is done by the photographer.

"The fact that they have fewer helicopters in the air that nobody reports anymore while they're flying, I think those are some good things that have come from the crash," Colton Krolak, who was just 14 when his father died, said.

Never forget

A memorial to honor the four newsmen was built at the site of the crash inside Steele Indian School Park near Third Street and Indian School Road. Dedicated on the first anniversary of the tragedy, friends and family gather each year to remember Bowerbank, Cox, Smith and Krolak.

Sometimes it is difficult to believe that 10 years have passed.

"Ten is a number," Alan said. "We just feel like it happened just yesterday. We're still waiting for him to walk through the door." 

"Every year it's hard but now it seems really hard because sometimes it seems like it just happened and then you're like, '10 years is a long time,'" Leslie agreed. "I still feel like he's kind of like on a long vacation and I'm going to see him again and then I realize, no, it's been 10 years; I'm not going to. ... I keep thinking he's going to walk through the door and he doesn't."

Colton, now 24, has had so many milestones without his dad.

"It feels like [my father has] been gone a long time ... but at the same time, he's still so instrumental in our lives," he said. "Like we talk about him every single day and I think about him every single day so it doesn't seem like he's been gone that long because he's still so fresh in our lives. ... I always use the lessons that he gave me in life even just short years 14 years, not a lot of time, but he was such a good father that it has carried me throughout my entire life and I hope  that it carries me throughout the rest of my life."

Although life has gone on and the world is a far different place than it was 10 years ago, one thing remains constant. 

"I think it's important that the memories of these men aren't forgotten," Colton said.

Looking to the future

Although all four men were loved, one in particular -- 3TV's Cox -- continues to inspire young photojournalists today through The James Alan Cox Foundation for Student Photographers. The foundation was created by Cox's family to honor his memory by providing financial support to expanding opportunities for young photojournalists in high school or college.

The foundation has awarded scholarships to nearly 100 students from all over the country, always looking for the go-getter spirit Cox, who loved his job, exemplified. 

"We just thought, 'We have to do something,' and we knew Jimmy would really like this, would like us helping, you know, kids who needed financial help and helping them in their careers and photojournalists," Leslie said. "So we had to do something for him and also to remember him and keep his name alive -- and his spirit." 

"Through a variety of funding, including equipment purchases and scholarships for college and technical school classes, the foundation’s mission is to expand educational and developmental opportunities for student photographers demonstrating interest, talent and financial need," according to the foundation's website.

The numbers are impressive.

"We've now given out 97 scholarships to 49 college students, three graduate students -- because we just started that giving out to graduate students a couple of years ago -- and 45 high school students," Leslie said. "So we've given out over $180,000 in scholarships.

"The kids we give to are so deserving; they're wonderful photojournalists," she continued. "I know Jimmy's smiling."

Leslie has a goal for the foundation that bears the name of her "spectacular kid brother.'

"[We want] to tell more people about the foundation and to get more kids to apply," she said. "We're always trying to reach out across the country and to Phoenix -- we love the kids from Arizona State who apply -- and to reach more people with the foundation and just, we've got to remember Jimmy. We just we can't let him go." 

"The Jim Foundation," as the Cox family calls it, is accepting applications now through Nov. 15.


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