By Alan Gathright, Rocky Mountain News
A Centennial-based air ambulance company pledged today to help find the cause of an Arizona medical helicopter collision that killed six people and critically injured a nurse. It was the company’s second fatal crash in as many months.
Aaron Todd, CEO of Air Methods Corp., the nation’s largest air ambulance service, declined to discuss the details of the Sunday accident.
Air Methods’ helicopter went down about 3:45 p.m. east of Flagstaff Medical Center after colliding with another medical helicopter transporting a patient from the Grand Canyon.
All three people on the Air Methods aircraft died. They were identified today as pilot Pat Graham, 50, flight nurse Shawn Shreeve, 36, and patient Raymond Zest, 54.
On the second helicopter, owned by Classic Helicopters of Woods Cross, Utah, pilot Tom Caldwell, 54, paramedic Tom Clausing, 36, and patient Michael McDonald, 26, all died.
A flight nurse, James Taylor, 36, on the Classic helicopter was in critical condition today at Flagstaff Medical Center.
The hometowns of the crash victims were not immediately known.
Asked if the helicopter was equipped with a collision warning alarm, Todd said: “We’re not giving any specifics about the aircraft or the circumstances of the accident, because it’s the subject of an (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation and we do not want to compromise that investigation or add any fuel to speculation of what might have given rise to the collision.”
“Certainly we will do everything we can to cooperate with the investigation and to ensure that the NTSB is able to find what gave rise to the event,” he said.
Todd, who flew to Flagstaff today, wouldn’t say whether crew members were from Colorado, but said the firm’s helicopter was flown by a veteran pilot.
“It’s obviously a very tragic event and our hearts and prayers go out to the families of those lost,” he said.
In May, a University of Wisconsin Hospital Med Flight helicopter leased from Air Methods crashed near Lacrosse, Wis., killing the surgeon, nurse and pilot on board.
Air Methods’ stock price finished at a 52-week low today, shedding $1.34, or 5.1 percent, to close at $25.
Air Methods is a publicly traded company whose Web site describes it as “the nation’s largest provider of air medical emergency transport services and systems.”
The 27-year-old company transports more than 84,000 patients annually, from accident scenes to hospitals, with a a fleet of more than 340 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in 42 states.
Sunday’s fiery collision occurred a few hundred yards away from a neighborhood that was spared the falling debris.
It was the ninth accident involving emergency medical flights this year, said a top federal investigator who called it a “disturbing trend.”
“This has been a serious issue,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker said at a news conference. “We’re going to work very, very hard to make sure we understand exactly what happened here, determine the probable cause and make recommendations to prevent it from happening again.”
Not all of the eight cases that Rosenker cited occurred in flight, but he said the NTSB is studying the safety of medical flights.
Rosenker says officials will look at similarities between the Flagstaff collision and one involving two news helicopters in Phoenix last year to identify any potential safety gaps. Four people died in the Phoenix crash last July.
NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said 16 people have died in medical helicopter accidents so far this year. Helicopters accounted for six of the nine accidents of EMS aircraft this year that either caused serious injury to people on board or damage to the aircraft.
On Sunday, one helicopter was coming in from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and another from the nearby community of Winslow, said Capt. Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the Flagstaff Fire Department.
The two Bell 407 helicopters were headed to the medical center at the time of the crash, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.
Lawrence Garduno, who lives about a half-mile from the crash, said he heard a loud boom that rattled the windows. He drove toward the hospital and stopped to see the burning wreckage.
“It kind of scares me,” Garduno said. “If this had happened a half-mile closer, it could have fallen on our house.”
An explosion on one of the aircraft after the crash injured two emergency workers who arrived with a ground ambulance company. They suffered minor burns and were spending the night at the hospital, but their injuries were not life-threatening.
The crash, about 130 miles north of Phoenix, also sparked a 10-acre brush fire that was contained.
It was the second medical helicopter accident in the Flagstaff area within two days.
Three crew members on an Air Evac Services chopper were hospitalized Friday when the aircraft had a “hard landing” while responding to a motorcycle accident in Ash Fork, about 50 miles west of Flagstaff. The chopper ended up on its side and lost its rotor blades.
In the Sunday air collision, the chopper ferrying the Grand Canyon patient was operated by Classic Helicopters of Woods Cross, Utah.
On the Classic helicopter, the pilot, paramedic and patient all died. A flight nurse on the Classic helicopter suffered extensive injuries and was in critical condition at the hospital.
Matt Stein, a program director and lead pilot with Classic Helicopters subsidiary Classic Lifeguard Aeromedical Services in Page, Ariz., said his company’s crew was landing at Flagstaff Medical Center carrying a patient with a medical emergency from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
“We’ve been in business 20 years, and these are the first fatalities we’ve experienced,” Stein said. “They were all heroes. They were out doing a great service for their communities.”
Stein didn’t tell The Associated Press the names of the crash victims, except to say that the pilot for Classic was experienced with more than 10,000 hours of flight time. He added that it’s rare for two medical helicopters to attempt to land at a hospital at the same time.
Flagstaff Medical Center doesn’t have flight controllers, he said, and it’s up to the pilots to watch each other as they approach.
The helicopters spread debris across the scene. “They’re not recognizable as helicopters,” said Capt. Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the Flagstaff Fire Department.
The FAA also is sending inspectors to investigate.
It was the largest loss of life involving helicopters in Arizona since two news helicopters collided last summer while covering an auto chase near Phoenix, killing all four people on board.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.