Floating in open water after the helicopter he and his parents had taken a tour on made an emergency landing into the water off Davis Islands on Thursday evening, Hunter Hupp had no idea who the three men were who quickly approached on two jet skis as he treaded water.
Hupp, 28, had spent the previous hour on a flight out to the beaches and back as a Christmas gift, but he and the helicopter’s other passengers heard a loud noise in the rotor above and had to land in the water, about 200 yards from shore.
“Let me tell you, helicopters sink really fast,” Hupp said Friday morning, grateful to wake up to another morning with his parents. “We learned that rather quickly.”
Photo credit: Hunter Hupp
Hupp’s parents, Wes and Lisa, made it out of the helicopter as it took on water, as had the pilot, but Hupp was the last one out, unable to free himself for about a minute before getting out and to the surface. The four of them floated together, only inches of the helicopter showing above the water, contemplating whether to wait for help or try to swim to land while fully clothed, then almost immediately saw two men on jet skis approaching.
One of them, as confirmed by a source close to the Buccaneers, was Tampa Bay backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who lives on Davis Island and was part of the rescue effort. Hupp said the two men helped his father up on one jet ski and he and his mother on the other, staying with them and coordinating how to bring back more people than the jet skis were meant to carry.
“They slowly brought us back to the shore, a sandy beach near the yacht club, and hung out for a while, were really nice,” Hupp said. “We exchanged pleasantries upon reaching flat ground. They were really an asset to helping us out, because we were the only ones out there for a while. It was a handshake and a huge and ‘Thank you so much.’ They went out for a nice afternoon ride and just happened to come upon a stranded helicopter family.”
Tampa police arrived in a boat within five minutes, he said, but having the two jet skis there quickly kept them from having too much time alone in the water, unsure how long they could stay afloat.
“We think about all the what-ifs,” said Hupp, who lives in Philadelphia and works in sales. “What happened obviously wasn’t great, but we managed pretty well for what happened.”
Gabbert, 33, is in his 12th NFL season and fourth with the Bucs, though he hasn’t played a snap this season as the top backup to Tom Brady. The Bucs have been busy preparing for Sunday’s game against Carolina, where a win can clinch a second straight division title for Tampa Bay, but that wasn’t all Gabbert did Thursday.
Hupp said he had no idea one of his rescuers was an NFL quarterback, as they hadn’t exchanged more than first names, but told a description of Gabbert, he said “I think that was the one my mom was clinging to.”
“My mom said she was hoping to meet Tom Brady while we were down here,” he said. “I think she came pretty darn close.”
Tampa police said a helicopter had to make an emergency landing just after 5 p.m. Thursday due to an engine failure as it approached Peter O. Knight Airport, on the southern end of Davis Islands, in Hillsborough Bay, the northeast tip of Tampa Bay. The initial report from police was only that all four aboard had survived and agencies were working to remove the submerged helicopter from the water.
Gabbert has a home on Davis Islands, a community where several Tampa Bay pro athletes, including Brady, have called home.
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Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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