A litigation associate at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York was one of seven soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq on March 15.
Christopher Tripp Zanetis, known to friends and colleagues by his middle name, perished when a HH-60 Pave Hawk carrying him and six other airmen crashed along the Iraq-Syria border after hitting a power line. U.S. military officials said that Iraqi security forces quickly reached the crash site.
The accident, which military officials said was not a result of enemy fire during a combat mission, occurred near the western Iraqi town of Al-Qa’im, where U.S. forces operate a logistics center and resupply base, according to news reports. Al-Qa’im, part of Iraq’s restive Anbar province, was the last ISIS stronghold in the country until pro-government forces backed by the U.S. pushed out the extremist group late last year. The border region reportedly remains an active transit point for ISIS fighters fleeing Syria.
“This tragedy reminds us of the risks our men and women face every day in service of our nations,” said a statement by Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, director of operations for the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria.
Zanetis, 37, passed the New York bar exam last year and started working at Debevoise in the fall, according to his profile on professional networking website LinkedIn, which also notes his role as a fire marshal in the New York City Fire Department and as a captain in the 106th Rescue Wing of the U.S. Air Force, which the U.S. Department of Defense said he joined in 2008 as a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot. The Pave Hawk is frequently used for the insertion and extraction of special forces personnel.
“We are deeply saddened to learn that our colleague Tripp Zanetis was lost in Thursday’s U.S. military helicopter crash in Iraq,” Debevoise said in a statement. “He was an exceptional person and will be greatly missed by his many friends and colleagues in the firm. Our thoughts and prayers are with Tripp’s family.”
Zanetis, who was on his fourth tour overseas, graduated in 2017 from Stanford Law School, which also issued a statement mourning his loss.
“Zanetis was a beloved student, friend and community member here at Stanford Law School and will be deeply missed,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, dean of the law school where Zanetis enrolled in August 2014. “We are heartbroken at his loss. Our thoughts are with his family and with all who knew and loved him. He was one of the most extraordinary students I had the privilege of knowing, and he will long be remembered in the institution.”
In a moving tribute to Zanetis over the weekend, Stanford Law professor Michelle Wilde Anderson wrote about how her former student showed her how to knock with her elbows when visiting his firehouse—FDNY Engine Co. 28, Ladder 11 in Manhattan’s East Village—as one’s hands on arrival should be holding a cake from the nearby Ferrara Bakery.
Anderson noted that Zanetis, who grew up in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel and Bloomington, Indiana, came out as gay at 15 and that his family was supportive. When he moved to New York to attend New York University, he lived just three blocks from the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Anderson said Zanetis, a civilian at the time, quickly made his way to Ground Zero to assist medical and rescue personnel. After graduating cum laude from NYU, Zanetis joined the FDNY in 2003.
At the time of his death, Zanetis was on an unpaid leave of absence from the FDNY to pursue a legal career, according to news reports, some of which noted that he began his third tour in Iraq in mid-January. Also killed in the helicopter crash was FDNY Lt. Christopher Raguso, 39. Both men were members of the New York Air National Guard based out of Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, New York.
“They are truly two of New York City’s bravest—running into danger to protect and defend others, both in New York City and in combat areas,” said a statement from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest condolences to their families, loved ones and fellow service members and FDNY members.”
He spent more than eight years as a firefighter, receiving accolades in 2012 for being one of four FDNY friends and airmen to serve in Afghanistan with the New York Air National Guard. In 2013, Zanetis was promoted to fire marshal, where he began investigating arsons and other matters with the FDNY’s Bureau of Fire Investigation in Brooklyn.
“[Zanetis] was operating at genius level,” an unnamed friend told the New York Daily News. “He was the future of this country. He was really a true American hero.”
Newsday reported that Zanetis took leave from the FDNY in order to pursue a law degree and follow in the footsteps of his father, John Zanetis Jr., a now retired lawyer in Carmel, according to the Indiana Roll of Attorneys. The elder Zanetis, a former director and co-founder of Capstone Capital Consulting, told the New York Post that his son loved rescuing people and simply wanted to be of service, whether it was as a firefighter, soldier or lawyer.
“They were flying pretty low to avoid being picked up by radar, somehow the rotors got hit by power lines,” John Zanetis said to the Post. “That’s the danger of flying at night. Instruments don’t pick up the power lines.”
John Zanetis told the newspaper about another incident in Iraq during a previous tour when it was his son in need of rescuing, caught in a crossfire while trying to bring a wounded individual aboard his rescue helicopter. Zanetis’ unit was saved when a British Army detachment led by Prince Harry swooped in to obliterate the enemy, said John Zanetis, noting that his son later scored a picture with the royal at a New Year’s party.
The younger Zanetis, a resident of Long Island City, Queens, was also a CrossFit instructor and a contributor to the national security website Just Security. Benjamin Haas, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who worked last summer at Covington & Burling, noted in his own tribute to Zanetis how his Stanford Law classmate was a proud member of the LGBT community, both in law school and in the military.
When the Defense Department lifted its transgender ban in 2016, Zanetis wrote for Stanford Lawyer praising the decision. The National LGBT Bar Association gave Zanetis its Student Leadership Award in 2017. In one of his last posts on social media, from March 13, Zanetis retweeted a statement from Sen. John McCain about leadership changes made by the Trump administration at the CIA and the U.S. Department of State.
As of Sunday, the other airmen killed in the crash near Al-Qa’im had been identified as Dashan Briggs of Riverhead, New York; Andreas O’Keeffe of Center Moriches, New York; William Posch of Indialantic, Florida; Carl Enis of Pinecrest, Florida; and Mark Weber of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Briggs, O’Keeffe, Raguso and Zanetis were all members of the 106th Rescue Wing on Long Island’s East End, which posted a series of photos online honoring its fallen members. The exact cause of the accident remains under investigation.
The death of Zanetis comes more than a year after FDNY battalion chief Michael Fahy, a former Proskauer Rose associate, was killed while battling a blaze in the Bronx. Fahy’s widow, Fiona Brett, is a former pro bono counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in New York. Zanetis’ family said he was single at the time of his death.