RATON, N.M. — A husband and wife who pushed for political change in Zimbabwe, an adventurous Texas investor and a pair of decorated pilots died in a fiery helicopter crash in a remote area of New Mexico.
Investigators will comb through the charred wreckage in search for clues as to why the helicopter carrying the group of prominent friends went down after dark Wednesday.
Friends and family members confirmed Thursday that Zimbabwe opposition leader Roy Bennett and his wife, Heather, had traveled to New Mexico to spend their holiday with friend and wealthy businessman Charles Burnett III at his ranch. Burnett’s friends, pilot Jamie Coleman Dodd of Colorado and co-pilot Paul Cobb of Texas, were ferrying the group aboard a Huey UH-1 when it went down.
Despite frigid temperatures that evening, the weather appeared to be clear and the wind was mild as they headed east over a rugged area toward Burnett’s ranch.
The only survivor was Andra Cobb, the co-pilot’s daughter and Burnett’s long-term partner. She was able to escape before the helicopter burst into flames.
Her voice breaking, Martha Cobb told The Associated Press that her 39-year-old daughter was hospitalized with broken bones.
“She’s just very distraught,” the mother said in a telephone interview. “I’m just glad my daughter is OK, but I hate that my husband of 41 years is gone.”
The Cobbs and Bennetts had become friends while traveling on cruises.
Roy Bennett, 60, treasurer-general of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, won a devoted following of black Zimbabweans for passionately advocating political change. A white man who spoke fluent Shona, he drew the wrath of former President Robert Mugabe.
Bennett survived a traumatic year in jail and death threats over his work. He was known as “Pachedu,” meaning “one of us” in Shona and was often called the sharpest thorn in Mugabe’s side.
Obert Gutu, spokesman for the MDC-T party, described Bennett’s death as a “huge and tragic loss.”
Born in England, Burnett was an investor and philanthropist with links to a wide range of businesses and a love of entertaining friends extravagantly. In 2009, he drove a steam-powered car at an average speed of 139.8 miles per hour to set a world record, The Guardian newspaper reported.
Burnett, 61, was friends with both pilots, according to his personal attorney, Martyn Hill. Both Dodd and Cobb were experienced aviators who would not have taken unnecessary risks in the helicopter, Hill said.
After being shot down while flying a helicopter in the Vietnam War, Cobb returned to the U.S. and served as a police officer for three decades in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, Texas, before becoming police chief, his wife said.
Dodd was a decorated search-and-rescue pilot who helped stranded residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. During his time in the military, he flew medical evacuation missions in Central and South America and was inducted in 2010 into the Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Military Institute, where he had gone to school.
Above reproach is how his estranged wife, Jacqueline Dodd, described him.
Authorities were alerted to the crash around 6 p.m. Wednesday by a 911 call from Andra Cobb.
Officials launched a search but said the response was slow because of the rugged terrain and lack of access. Engulfed in flames, the wreckage of the helicopter registered to an aviation company linked to Burnett was spotted on a ranch.
The intended destination was the Emery Gap Ranch, a mountainous property near the Colorado-New Mexico border, southeast of Trinidad. Burnett bought it in February, said Sam Middleton, a real estate broker in Lubbock, Texas, who helped with the purchase.
In Zimbabwe, Tendai Biti, a prominent opposition leader and a former finance minister, tweeted that the Bennetts’ “tragic passing” was “a blow to our struggle.” David Coltart, an opposition figure, said the couple were “two of Zimbabwe’s greatest patriots.”
In 2004, Roy Bennett was jailed for a year for assaulting a Cabinet minister who had said Bennett’s “forefathers were thieves and murderers” during a parliamentary debate. An enraged Bennett charged the minister, who fell to the floor.
He emerged from prison rail-thin and scarred from repeated sunburns. He told of the mistreatment of fellow prisoners, some of whom he said had starved to death in their cells.
After receiving death threats, Bennett fled Zimbabwe but returned in 2009 after his party nominated him for the deputy agriculture minister in a coalition government with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Mugabe, who had repeatedly alleged Bennett was the opposition party’s contact with foreign funders, refused to swear him in.
Bennett later returned to South Africa but remained a vocal critic of Mugabe’s rule. He also criticized his former party for allegedly enjoying the comforts of government while ordinary Zimbabweans suffered.
Associated Press writers Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe, Mary Hudetz in Albuquerque, and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.