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Saturday, February 16

Copter crashes south of Daytona, two die
Associated Press

NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. -- Two people died in a helicopter crash Saturday while on the way to pick up NASCAR team owner and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.

Volusia County Sheriff officials tentatively identified the victims as pilot Michael McNellis of Tampa and Robin Leedom of Las Vegas. Officials were waiting on autopsy results and dental records checks to confirm the identity of the victims.

Volusia County authorities were first notified the Bell 206 Long Ranger helicopter had not reached its destination around 8 a.m. EST Saturday, sheriff's spokesman Gary Davidson said.

A sheriff's helicopter then spotted the wreckage in a remote swampy area about 15 miles south of Daytona Beach, Davidson said.

The helicopter was found in about two feet of water, leaving a debris field about 150 yards long, sheriffs said.

"The helicopter was coming over from Orlando to take me to Tarpon Springs for a breakfast meeting and then bring me back," Gibbs said after arriving at Daytona International Speedway. "I got up real early and we were supposed to leave at 6 o'clock. It never showed up and a local person bailed me out and took me over on another plane. It's a tragic experience."

Gibbs, who gave a motivational speech at the meeting, was at the speedway later Saturday for the NASCAR Busch Series event.

"It's real scary ... ," said J.D. Gibbs, president of JGR. "We're fortunate, but it really puts things into perspective."

The names of the pilot and the passenger were not released. The helicopter was owned by Orlando-based Universal Air Service of Florida, Inc. A man who answered the telephone there declined comment.

Gibbs owns a pair of Winston Cup cars, driven by Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart.

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