Capt. Gerald D. Lawrence lost his life along with newlyweds Will Byler and Bailee Byler early on Sunday morning after the helicopter he was piloting crashed shortly after taking off from the couple’s wedding.
Lawrence, an experienced pilot and Vietnam War veteran, made a call for help just before the Bell 206B helicopter crashed near the Byler’s ranch around 1:57 a.m. outside of Uvalde, Texas, his stepdaughter, Amilyn Willard, tells PEOPLE.
“He did make a mayday call. He knew his job like the back of his hand,” Willard says of her stepfather, 76. “He flew all the time. These people trusted their most precious gift — their children — in his hands. He was very well-trained. He got his physical every year. He was in perfect condition.”
Lawrence and the Bylers took off from the wedding reception and made their way to a local airport, where the couple had planned to fly to their honeymoon location, according to Judge Steve Kennedy, Justice of the Peace for Precinct 1 in Uvalde County, who spoke with local news outlets.
Willard tells PEOPLE that Lawrence attended the lavish wedding with his wife, Willard’s mother, — whom he married in April — and did not drink alcohol at the event. She adds that her stepfather was a “very trusted friend” of the couple’s family.
“They all loved my dad dearly and they saw us as family as well,” Willard says of herself, her mother and her siblings. “The family does not blame my father for the accident. We don’t know exactly what happened, but no one is to blame. Everybody lost a loved one and a friend.”
Judge Kennedy said the groom’s father was the owner of the helicopter, a Bell 206B, but that Lawrence had piloted the aircraft for about 20 years.
“It’s just really sad. Tragic,” Kennedy told reporters. “It was not a great, big helicopter. It was in pieces when I saw it up on the top of the hill. It was really hard to get to.”
In the days since the accident, Willard and her family have struggled to come to terms with their loss. Now, she says, she holds onto the fond memories she has of Lawrence.
“This is traumatic. It’s unfathomable. You never think anything like this will happen to you … especially when you know that the pilot is someone as remarkable and responsible as he was,” Willard says.
“He was a great man and had a huge impact to everybody he met in his life.”
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are currently investigating the cause of the crash.