APOLLO BEACH — Witnesses saw a small, black helicopter foundering in the sky.
One man heard a pop. Another saw the helicopter turn upward, then plummet down, about 300 yards offshore, near Pine Key.
An off-duty police officer, among others, called 911, and authorities from across Hillsborough responded with trucks, boats and divers, drawn to a spot in the water marked by a fuel slick and floating seat cushions and pieces of a helicopter.
But about an hour after the 3:10 p.m. crash, the ground units left.
Authorities were looking for a body. They suspended the search Friday night and vowed to resume at 7:30 a.m. today, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
Witness John Cerrato of Apollo Beach expected the worst after seeing the crash.
"The way it fell out of the sky," Cerrato said, "it was done."
Another witness, Matthew Scull, said he saw the helicopter do a flip in the air.
"It came down with a crazy, mashing metal noise and a huge splash," he said.
Scull called 911, then rushed to his boat. By the time he got to the crash site, other boats had already arrived.
About three hours after beginning their search, with no one pulled from the bay, deputies confirmed they knew two things: where the helicopter took off and the name of the person on the log as the pilot.
They did not release either bits of information, while divers searched near the key commonly known as "Beer Can Island."
There was an initial report of a body seen floating in the water, though that remained unconfirmed for hours.
The helicopter is a Robinson R22, a small, two-bladed, single-engine helicopter.
Times news researcher John Martin and staff photographers Edmund Fountain and Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.