After a powerful earthquake struck Mexico Friday, frightened survivors near the quake’s epicenter gathered in a field, opting to spend the night sleeping under the stars or in vehicles instead of in damaged homes vulnerable to aftershocks.
And then, a second unexpected crisis hit. This time, it fell from the sky.
A military helicopter carrying top officials assessing quake damage was preparing to land nearby when the pilot lost control. A few seconds later, the helicopter crashed to the earth — directly onto several vehicles packed with earthquake survivors.
Fourteen people on the ground died and least 21 people were injured, according to the state prosecutor’s office in Oaxaca, where the crash took place. The dead include at least three children.
Interior Secretary Alfonso Navarrete, Oaxaca Gov. Alejandro Murat and everybody else aboard the helicopter survived with only minor injuries, officials said.
Navarrete told a local journalist that the pilot of the Blackhawk helicopter lost control about 100 feet above the ground as it was preparing to land in the town of Jamiltepec, about 20 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter.
“It is unfortunate that this happened,” Navarrete told Televisa news Friday night, adding that it was good that “there was no greater loss of human lives.”
On Saturday, Secretary of National Defense Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda arrived in Jamiltepec and apologized to residents, saying his agency “assumes total responsibility for what happened here.”
“This misfortune originated from our interest in helping the community here,” he said, adding that his agency would help reconstruct homes and provide other assistance in the area.
Mexicans reacted angrily to the crash, with some questioning why a helicopter would try to land in a darkened field.
“In Oaxaca, a helicopter should not fly at night,” tweeted Mexican Sen. Layda Sansores, who belongs to the left-leaning Morena party.
She called the accident “an act of stupidity, of failed leadership and unforgivable irresponsibility.”
The accident was another embarrassment for Navarrete, who was chosen to head the Interior Department last month by President Enrique Peña Nieto. Earlier this month, an intelligence agent from an agency overseen by Navarrete was caught tailing a presidential candidate running against Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Navarrete and Murat were evaluating damage from the earthquake before their helicopter crashed.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the 7.2 magnitude quake struck near the town of Pinotepa in Oaxaca state at about 5:30 p.m. Friday. A magnitude 5.9 aftershock also centered in Oaxaca struck about an hour later, and was followed by a series of smaller aftershocks throughout the night and next day.
While some homes and businesses near the quake’s epicenter were damaged, there were no reports of deaths, officials said. About 200 miles away in Mexico City, where an earthquake early warning system sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing into the streets for safety Friday, only minor damage was reported.
Many Mexicans are still traumatized from twin earthquakes that struck days apart in September, killing more than 400 people across the southern and central parts of the country.
Oaxaca was particularly hard hit by the first quake, on Sept. 8, which struck off the coast of Mexico with a staggering magnitude of 8.2. Nearly 100 people died in that quake, most of them in Oaxaca, and many communities are only now beginning to rebuild collapsed structures.
Friday’s helicopter accident was an unexpected tragedy for a small community that appeared to have miraculously been spared in the latest earthquake. While geophysicists warned in the aftermath of the quake that communities near the epicenter could be severely affected, no deaths were reported.
According to local newspaper Imparcial de la Costa, the damage in Jamiltepec was limited to about 50 homes and the Catholic Church.
That was until the helicopter crashed Friday night at about 10 p.m. The newspaper reported that before trying to land, the helicopter had circled several times, kicking up dust and likely reducing visibility.
The newspaper said at least five families were affected by the crash. Photos of the accident site show at least two mangled vehicles, overturned plastic chairs, a sleeping bag and several blankets scattered on the ground.
“Who ordered this helicopter to fly at night, with the evident risk to those flying and to civilians?” Tweeted journalist Julio Hernandez. “Who is responsible for this accident?”
Cecilia Sanchez in the Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with new details that include an apology to residents from Secretary of National Defense Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who arrived in Jamiltepec on Saturday.
11:25 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting that include comments from Mexican Senator Layda Sansores, who was critical of the attempt to land the helicopter in the area at night.
This article was originally published at 8:30 a.m.