Marion community reeling in wake fatal helicopter crash that claimed two lives

Staff Photo by Stephen Hargis / An American flag and a South Pittsburg High School flag hang above the highway on Aug. 24, 2022, as a procession of law enforcement vehicles, one was carrying the body of Marion County Sheriff’s Detective Matt Blansett to a local funeral home, moves through. Blansett and Tennessee Highway Patrol pilot Sgt. Lee Russell were killed Tuesday in a helicopter crash in east Marion County.

WHITESIDE, Tenn. -- A team of local and state officials spent most of Wednesday working at the scene where a crash involving a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter claimed the lives of the trooper pilot and a Marion County Sheriff's Office detective Tuesday afternoon.

The scene is on the slopes of Aetna Mountain near the Georgia border.

Officials in the area of the crash were tight-lipped Wednesday, none of them offering comment as they returned and left again from the tiny Whiteside Church of God on State Route 134 where recovery teams met and planned throughout the day.

Early Wednesday, Steve Lamb, Marion County emergency management agency director, confirmed the Marion County officer's identity as Sheriff's Office Detective Matt Blansett. Lamb said all the detective's family had been notified. Blansett was the passenger flying with state trooper pilot Sgt. Lee Russell when the helicopter crashed off Interstate 24.


Blansett and Russell were killed around 4 p.m. CDT Tuesday when the Bell 206 helicopter owned by the Tennessee Department of Safety "crashed under unknown circumstances on a mountainside" after hitting a high tension power line, in Whiteside, Tennessee, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The helicopter went down on the slopes of Aetna Mountain, the FAA said.

In response to a query Wednesday, the FAA said in an email it has no record of accidents or incidents for the Highway Patrol helicopter that crashed and no record of accidents, incidents or enforcement actions for Russell.

"The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and the Marion County Sheriff's Department suffered a heartbreaking loss," THP said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "Patrol Sgt. Lee Russell of the THP Aviation Division and Marion County Sheriff's Department Detective Matt Blansett were conducting an aerial mission in the Chattanooga area when the helicopter they were operating crashed in a wooded area of Marion County."

State Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Jeff Long said in the release there are no words to describe the heartache and sadness his department is experiencing.

"Sgt. Russell was an outstanding pilot but an even better person," Long said in the release. "We mourn with the Marion County Sheriff's Department in the loss of Detective Matt Blansett."

Both men were passionate about their jobs, the release says.

"This is a tremendous loss for the Tennessee law enforcement community," the release continues. "We ask for prayers of comfort for the families, our department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department during this dark and difficult time."

Highway Patrol Col. Matt Perry said the two men would be remembered with honor.

"Our hearts are filled with sadness," Perry said in the statement. "As we navigate these difficult times, we ask that you please pray for their families, friends and the men and women of the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Marion County Sheriff's Department. These men are heroes, and we will never forget them."

The Highway Patrol said the crash remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in conjunction with the FAA.

The specifics of the mission Blansett and Russell were on is unknown.

Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Scott Fiedler said crews from the federal utility are assessing damage to the lines and, on behalf of TVA, Fiedler offered a comment to the victims' families.

"All of us at TVA are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic loss of the officers," Fiedler said Wednesday in an email. "We want to express our heartfelt condolences to their families, colleagues and loved ones during this difficult time. We know they will be sorely missed."

Meanwhile, TVA crews will be cleaning up and repairing damage.

"The helicopter struck a TVA transmission line near Raccoon Mountain. The line broke and was laying across I-24," Fiedler said. "TVA crews immediately responded to safely remove the conductor from the roadway. Because of the redundancies in our system, this incident did not cause any power interruptions for our customers."

TVA line crews will begin repairs Wednesday, he said.

"As soon as the team assesses the damage, we will have a better handle on creating a repair schedule," Fiedler said.

Marion County Mayor David Jackson said the community is still reeling and will continue to feel the loss deeply.

"We're all struggling. It's a shock, and I can't imagine what his family's going through," Jackson said Wednesday afternoon in a phone interview.

As he spoke, Jackson said he was on the Marion County Courthouse square in Jasper where a procession of dozens of law enforcement vehicles solemnly passed by, one of the vehicles carrying Blansett's body from Nashville to a local funeral home. Only the emergency lights of the vehicles flashed.

"I'm standing right now here on the streets of Jasper, and there's probably a hundred-and-something people standing along the streets of Jasper, and all the way to South Pittsburg, paying their respects to him as they're bringing his body back," Jackson said. "It's just tough. You don't know what to say."

Along with being a longtime detective with the Sheriff's Office, Blansett was also a Marion County commissioner, most recently holding his District 2, Seat C post without an opponent in the August general election, according to the Marion County Election Commission. Blansett was elected to the position in 2014.

Jackson said Blansett as an officer and commissioner had a positive influence over a 20-year law enforcement career and eight years on the County Commission. Public service is the Blansett family's blood, Jackson said.

Blansett's father, Donald Blansett, is also a longtime Marion County commissioner. His mother, Donna Blansett, is a member of the Marion County school board, and his sister, Samantha Rector, is mayor of South Pittsburg, Jackson said.

"The main thing right now is to keep his family in our prayers. He's got two young boys," Jackson said. "We need to help his family get through the coming days and weeks and months to come.

"It's going to be a long road," the county mayor said.

Twelfth Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor, whose district includes Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties, had worked with Blansett for many years, he said Wednesday in a phone interview.

"It's a tragedy. My heart goes out to the families of our members in law enforcement. It was a sad day for law enforcement," Taylor said. "I was not acquainted with the pilot, but I knew Matt Blansett quite well. He was nice fellow and a good man to work with."

Area lawmakers also offered condolences.

"We are extremely saddened to learn about the tragic accident and the loss of life involving a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter yesterday in Marion County," Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, of Crossville, said Wednesday in an emailed statement. "Our entire state is praying for those we have lost, and may their loved ones be comforted during this difficult time."

U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of West Tennessee released a statement on the deaths.

"Roberta and I are saddened to hear about the death of Trooper Lee Russell of Carroll County and a Marion County sheriff's deputy," Kustoff said Wednesday in an email. "Trooper Russell served our community honorably, and we will forever be grateful for his service to West Tennessee and the state of Tennessee. My thoughts and prayers are with Trooper Russell's family, as well as the Tennessee Highway Patrol during this difficult time."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.