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One person is killed and three others are rescued after helicopter crashes into the Tennessee River

Prominent Tennessee businessman Joe Clayton, the co-founder of Clayton Homes, was identified this afternoon as the victim of a helicopter crash in Knoxville on Monday night. 

Clayton, 84, was killed when the aircraft, a Eurocopter EC-130 carrying three other men, crashed into the Tennessee River. 

Clayton’s older brother, James Clayton, the brother’s grandson, Flynt Griffin, and a friend, Jay McBride, escaped the wreckage and were picked up by a pontoon boat that was on the river near Knoxville. 

Knoxville Fire Department spokesman D.J. Corcoran said at a news conference that the survivors refused medical treatment and walked away from the scene.

‘I am devastated and completely heartbroken by the loss of my wonderful brother, Joe,’ Jim Clayton said in a statement to WBIR. ‘Joe and I were as close as two brothers can be, and, as only siblings, we have supported each other since growing up together on a farm in West Tennessee and as business partners for decades. My thoughts and concerns are totally for Joe’s family right now.’

Jim Clayton thanked first responders and Good Samaritans who rushed to their aid. 

Jim and Joe Clayton, the sons of sharecroppers, founded Clayton Homes, a manufactured home company, in 1966.  

During the 1980s, Joe and Jim split their business interests, with the older brother focusing on car sales through their Clayton Automobiles venture, and the younger taking the reins of the manufactured housing company.

Jim Clayton was able to turn Clayton Homes into an industry leader before selling it to billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2003 for $1.7billion.

Clayton Homes is currently run by Jim Clayton’s son, Kevin Clayton.

After selling his company, Jim Clayton has gone into banking and philanthropy. He and his family foundation are planning to build a $100million science museum in Knoxville. 

Flynt Griffin, 40, Jim Clayton’s grandson, listed as director of the Clayton Family Foundation. 

Jay McBride, 65, is a Knoxville developer and supporter of the arts.

Residents called authorities after the helicopter splashed down in the river at around 7.40pm on Monday, and the Knoxville Fire Department sent crews into the water to search for the missing victim using underwater sonar devices, according to Corcoran.

It took divers more than two hours to find Joe Clayton’s body in 30 feet of dark river water, according to WVLT.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the deceased victim’s body was recovered within a few feet of the crash site around 9.45pm.

It was not clear whether the 84-year-old Joe Clayton was a pilot or a passenger, Corcoran said. 

The other three people on board were identified by the Knoxville police on Tuesday morning as James Clayton, Jay McBride and Flynt Griffin.

It was not immediately known whether the helicopter was landing or taking off when it went down behind a home in the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood on Lakeview Drive.

The station WBIR reported that the helicopter went down about four miles west of the Downtown Island Airport in Knoxville. 

Local resident Robert Crawford told Knoxville News Sentinel he saw the helicopter descending toward the river, as if to make a water landing. 

According to the witness, the aircraft ‘seemed to hesitate’ before suddenly crashing. 

Crawford said the rotor blades ‘exploded’ into hundreds of pieces on impact. 

The National Transportation Safety Board is determining the cause of the crash.

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