Tampa Bay backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the Tampa Police Department Marine Patrol rescued four when a helicopter ditched in Tampa Bay Thursday. Photo courtesy of Tampa Police Department/UPI
Dec. 30 (UPI) -- Tampa Bay backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert said he "was at the right place at the right time" when he helped rescue four people after a helicopter they were in crashed into Tampa Bay on Thursday.
On Friday, Gabbert said he was riding recreational watercraft on the bay with his two younger brothers, Tyler and Bret, Thursday afternoon when they heard a sound and realized the helicopter was going down. It crashed about 200 yards from Davis Islands and near the Peter O. Knight Airport after experiencing engine problems.
Onboard the helicopter with the 33-year-old male pilot was a family of three who had booked the hourlong sightseeing flight over Tampa and area beaches as a Christmas gift. All four aboard the helicopter escaped without serious injury, including one passenger who was briefly submerged in the wreckage.
The family aboard the helicopter was identified as Wes Hupp, 62, Lisa Hupp, 59, and their son Hunter Hupp, 28, who was visiting from Philadelphia. It was the first time any of the passengers involved had flown aboard a helicopter.
Authorities identified the pilot as Rafael Ciriaco.
Witnesses said Wes and Lisa Hupp and the pilot were able to get out of the helicopter after it hit the water. Hunter Hupp, though, said he was briefly submerged underwater in the aircraft's cockpit, tangled up in cables and seatbelts around him. He eventually was able to free himself in less than a minute, he said.
"I thought about my parents floating on top and what they were going to go through for the rest of their life. So I did my best," to get out," Hunter Hupp said.
"To be honest with you, I'm pretty astounded that I am standing here to talk to you," Hunter Hupp later told reporters.
Within minutes of the aircraft going into the water, Gabbert and his brothers, who were visiting from Missouri, arrived on scene, with Gabbert saying Friday he saw yellow life jackets floating in the water and "it almost looked like a crew boat in the water that had broken up into about four pieces."
"I was expecting the worst-case scenario once I pulled up and realized it was a helicopter," Gabbert said, adding that he quickly called 911 before trying to help the people in the water onto his Jet Skis to get them out of the cold water in the bay.
The pilot remained in the water but held onto Gabbert's Jet Ski as the Tampa Police Marine Patrol Unit arrived, and Gabbert helped guide the man to their boat.
On Friday, Tampa Police interim chief Lee Bercaw named Gabbert an honorary member of the Tampa Police Department Marine Patrol and gave him a department hat after Friday's Bucs practice. Gabbert also received a special commemorative coin from the marine unit.
Gabbert has been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 2019, earning a Super Bowl ring with the team in 2021's Super Bowl LV. He was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round with the 10th overall pick in 2011. He also has played for the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans.
The FAA and the NTSB will conduct an investigation of crash.