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A chopper crashes and a training mantra kicks in to save lives

PoliceOne Contributor and internationally-known trainer Brian Willis brought the question “What’s important now?” to law enforcement

Eric Slovinsky’s primary focus was on three young drug suspects he and another officer were handling on a nighttime traffic stop. But his attention was hijacked when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a helicopter flying “unusually low” over some apartment buildings nearby.

“The tail was bobbing up and down,” he says. Then the chopper “started spinning in circles and plunged out of sight behind the buildings. I thought, ‘Holy cow!’ — except I didn’t really think ‘cow’.”

At that instant, Slovinsky — a use-of-force instructor and four-year officer with the Indiana Borough (Pa.) PD — was thrust into a crisis for which he had no training or experience. “With all the training we receive, I knew nothing about responding to an aircraft crash,” he told PoliceOne recently. “I had no knowledge of proper rescue procedures and didn’t really know even what kind of danger was possible.”

But what flashed to his mind was a universal mantra for decision-making that he’d learned at a training seminar about six weeks earlier.

He’s convinced it helped him save lives in the sudden, frantic chaos of that evening.

The chopper went down about 2035 hours last April 30, the first warm, dry Saturday of spring. Slovinsky, a 31-year-old veteran of two tours in Iraq as a Marine reserve MP, had come on duty at 2000 and for about 10 minutes had been working backup on the traffic stop with Ptlm. Tom Dessell. Dessell had detected the odor of marijuana during his initial contact and was searching the vehicle for contraband while Slovinsky kept an eye on the driver and two male passengers standing outside the car.

The helicopter, which had been aloft in the area for some time, carried a film crew shooting aerial views for a cable reality show called “Campus PD.” Similar to “COPS,” the show featured police action in and around colleges. Throughout the last two weeks, crew members had ridden with Slovinsky and other Indiana Borough officers, filming their interactions with students from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a dominant presence in the borough some 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.

That night, the crew was scheduled to begin riding again with Slovinsky at 2100, after finishing their aerial shoot. They’d hovered overhead for some footage of the traffic stop, then had swooped away to another locale. Minutes later, Slovinsky saw the bird go down.

Three crew members who’d become friends of his during their filming, plus a hired pilot, were on board. For a moment, Slovinsky was stunned. Then, he says, a decision-making aid that he’d been exposed to the previous month at a force instructor update sponsored by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center “popped into my mind.”

The aid is a simple — but profound — three-word question promoted by PoliceOne Contributor and internationally known trainer Brian Willis as a means of establishing priorities and guiding personal and professional behavior: “What’s important now?” — W.I.N. for short.

“Starting right there at the site of the traffic stop, it helped me focus my thoughts and choose my actions through everything that followed,” Slovinsky recalls.

First, of course, it was most important as fast as possible to get to the stricken chopper, which looked to have gone down about two blocks away. With Dessell retaining a small quantity of pot he’d recovered thus far in his search, Slovinsky told the suspects, “You’ve got the break of a lifetime. Get outta here!” Then the two officers sped to the scene, near the heavily populated university campus and a strip of popular bars.

The helicopter had landed on its left side in a narrow alleyway between two student rental buildings. Exactly what caused the accident is yet to be determined by the FAA, but for whatever reason the pilot apparently lost control while making a turn and the craft, heavily loaded with people and film equipment, plummeted to the ground.

“We ran into the alley and saw that a rotor blade had slashed through the roof and wall of one building,” Slovinsky says. “Fuel was spewing out like a fire hose. We could hear people inside the wreckage moaning and screaming for help. I knew there had to be survivors trapped.” With all the fuel around, Slovinsky feared “the thing was going to blow like in the movies any minute.”

By now the borough’s other two officers on duty, Cpl. Justin Schawl and Ptlm. Jeff Hoag, had arrived. “I decided the most important thing at this time was to get the victims out and away in case of explosion,” Slovinsky says, despite risk to the officers and to a quickly growing crowd of onlookers.

With the others following, he ran to the chopper and “we started cutting harnesses with our boot knives and pulling apart debris to get to the people inside.”

The pilot and a front passenger (the TV crew’s cameraman) were trapped by the control panel, which had been jammed against them. “We had to rip out framing and pull out the controls in order to free them,” Slovinsky says. The cameraman in particular appeared to be severely injured with leg and chest damage, but he gratefully gave a thumbs-up signal when he was extricated. As they worked, the officers were soaked in fuel and their apprehension about an explosion mounted.

One rear passenger, the crew’s soundman, was able to crawl out of the fuselage on his own, but the producer who’d also been in the rear could not move. “He was at the bottom of the helicopter as it landed and everything just crushed around him like a crumpled pop can,” Slovinsky explains. The officer reached in and clutched his arm, trying to comfort and reassure him until firefighters arrived and cut him free.

“After the victims were removed I again was going over W.I.N. in my mind and the next thing that was important was crowd control,” Slovinsky says.

An estimated 500 people pressed in on the scene now, gawking and taking pictures. “Due to the fuel spilling and the unknown of whether an explosion was imminent, it was necessary to get everyone as far away from the area as we could,” Slovinsky says. “The college kids were more interested in getting cool footage on their cell phones than realizing what kind of danger they were in.”

With the help of LEOs arriving from other jurisdictions, including IUP campus police, the borough officers spent nearly 30 minutes forcing the crowd back and then taping off a perimeter to secure almost an entire square block. Only one arrest was necessary (for not listening to commands) in getting the job done, Slovinsky says.

“I was the last important thing that needed to get taken care of,” he says. “I was wet from fuel, bloody from a cut on my arm from debris. I talked to EMS and ended up going to the hospital to get cleaned up and checked out.” It was after 0400 when he finally was relieved of duty.

“The incident was a traumatizing event that could have turned out worse than it did,” he says. Three of the men who went down with the chopper survived without permanent injury. The front passenger died a few weeks later from significant internal injuries. No onlookers were injured and, thanks to skillful actions by firefighters, an explosion was averted.

The phrase “What’s important now” and its acronym were coined by the legendary football coach Lou Holtz. He instructed his players to ask themselves this question at least 35 times a day.

Brian Willis, president of Winning Mind Training, brought the concept to the law enforcement profession and has made it his signature slogan. He believes cops should ask themselves what he terms “life’s most powerful question” throughout every day. “In doing so,” he says, “we are forced to focus on what is important at a particular moment in time, enabling us to prioritize our mission, the threats, and our actions.”

Eric Slovinsky enthusiastically concurs. “When I first heard of the W.I.N. concept, I made an immediate connection with it and decided to make it part of my everyday life. The night of the crash, W.I.N. helped me organize my thoughts and avoid panic and paralysis in that totally unfamiliar, unexpected situation. It provided a framework for getting through all the challenges we faced.

“No matter what kind of call you have, it can help you stay on your toes and not get complacent. I’m sure it saved lives that night.”

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