Bucs QB Blaine Gabbert helps rescue helicopter crash victims

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa police and the Hillsborough County Sherriff's Office are calling Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Blaine Gabbert a "citizen hero" after he and his two brothers rescued four people from the waters of Hillsborough Bay after a helicopter crash Thursday night.

Gabbert, 33, was out Jet Skiing with his two younger brothers, Tyler and Brett, when they came upon a submerged aircraft with a pilot and three passengers -- the Hupp family -- who had just plummeted from the sky upon approach to Peter O. Knight Airport.

"I vaguely remember hearing a faint noise," Gabbert said. "I just remember looking to the west and seeing ... it almost looked like a crew boat in the water that had broken up in about four pieces. And I vaguely remember seeing like two yellow life jackets, so I'm like, 'All right, we've got to go check this out.'"

Gabbert's brothers, visiting him from Missouri, discovered Wesley, Lisa and Hunter Hupp and their pilot all alive, but visibly shaken and covered in oil. Hunter, 33, was trapped inside the aircraft underwater but had managed to free himself after his mother, Lisa, 59, and father, Wesley, 62, made it to the surface. Tampa police identified the pilot as Rafael Ciriaco.

Gabbert, who said he has spent 30 years of his life on the water and considers himself a strong swimmer although he has never taken a formal water safety course, instructed them on how to inflate their life jackets.

"I was expecting the worst-case scenario once I pulled up and realized it was a helicopter," said Gabbert, who immediately called 911. "I tried to get them on the Jet Skis as fast as I could just to get them out of the water because it was pretty chill yesterday on the water. You don't want to have them in there for too long."

The pilot, who remained in the water, held onto Gabbert's Jet Ski as the Tampa police marine patrol unit arrived and Gabbert was able to gently guide him to their boat, which was about 250 meters from the beach.

Knowing the Jet Ski was taking on maximum weight and they'd need to go fast, Gabbert told Lisa, "Just please hold on tight. We'll get to the beach quick, get you dried off, get you a coffee, get you warmed up."

Officer Dan Spears, who was among those responding, called the Gabbert brothers' rescue a "pretty impressive feat" and commended their ability to stay calm.

"One of the most dangerous circumstances on aircraft is a water landing just due to the inversion of the helicopter and trying to escape that and not get trapped in," he said. "So it was a very amazing circumstance that everybody got out."

The family didn't know who Gabbert was, but within 30 to 45 minutes he got a text message from Bucs general manager Jason Licht.

"Did you just ... save some people from a helicopter crash?" Licht asked.

"I was like, 'Yeah. How'd you hear about it that fast?'" Gabbert recalled.

The conversation Gabbert had with his wife, Bekah, who was home with their 6-month-old daughter, evoked a similar reaction. She didn't find out until he pulled up to the dock later that evening.

"She was like, 'Where were you guys?'" said Gabbert, who responded, "You'll never believe this Thursday afternoon. There was a helicopter crash."

"She was like, 'What???'" Gabbert said.

"I honestly wanted to stay anonymous," he said. "I just thought I was doing the right thing at the right time. I'm not much of a guy to be in the limelight. Just kind of want to stay under the radar. But I just said, 'Thankfully, you guys are OK, and glad I was there.'

"I was at the right place at the right time, I guess. The credit really goes out to Tampa PD -- you guys, the fire department, the sheriff's department, because they were there within five seconds. It was pretty remarkable."

For Gabbert's efforts, Tampa police interim chief Lee Bercaw named Gabbert an honorary member of Tampa Police Department Marine Patrol, presenting him with a hat after practice Friday. Spears presented him with a special marine unit coin.

"I think it's outstanding," coach Todd Bowles said. "Anytime you can find a guy who will drop everything and go help somebody else that he doesn't even know without even thinking about it, and take their life into their own hands and helping somebody else -- saving their lives -- that says a lot about the guy. And Blaine did that.

"Blaine's a heck of a person. He comes out prepared every day. He always helps out -- whether it's offensively or defensively. From a teammate standpoint, you love to talk to him off the field and get to know the guy. Pretty laid back, pretty cool, family guy, loves his work."

Gabbert downplayed his role in the rescue.

"It wasn't me. My brothers and I were just out having fun. The credit goes to these guys," Gabbert said, pointing to the law enforcement and first responders standing next to him. "Because if they weren't there in the nick of time it could have turned bad, and I'm glad everyone's healthy."

Tampa police said the helicopter experienced engine failure. The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will conduct a full investigation to determine the exact cause of the crash.

"I was just trying to do the right thing -- help them out," Gabbert said. "Clearly, they were in need. I'm happy they all made it out alive."