- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Investigators are looking at whether construction cranes caused the helicopter crash on Monday night in the Potomac River that killed a paramedic and injured a nurse. The pilot is still missing.

“We have interviewed the survivor, and he believes [the helicopter] may have hit something,” said Maryland State Police Sgt. Robert A. Moroney.

An Alexandria Fire Department Marine Operations boat found survivor Jonathan Godfrey, 36, clinging to the tail of aircraft in shallow water about 10 minutes after receiving the emergency call at 11 p.m. He was a flight nurse on the crew.

“The survivor was very helpful,” Capt. Rodney Masser said. “He did what was needed to be done despite his pain, despite his injuries. He told us a little bit about the accident and how it happened.”

Investigators also are looking into other potential causes, including weather conditions, pilot error or birds becoming entangled in the helicopter blades.

The body of paramedic Nicole Kieler, 29, was found with the rear helicopter section, also in shallow water.

Divers have yet to find Joseph Schaffer, a pilot with 30 years experience. Mr. Schaffer, 56, was in the front section of the helicopter that broke loose and crashed into deep water, south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 between Virginia and Maryland.

Potomac Construction Company officials reported finding no damage to three of the five cranes on and near the bridge, said Ellen Engleman Connors, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The helicopter is being examined at the agency’s Ashburn, Va., facility.

Federal investigators today will re-examine the cranes and other cranes adjacent to the Washington Harbor site in Prince George’s County, which is close to where the helicopter crashed.

Some of the cranes are about 300 feet high. Helicopters operating in the area are required to fly below 300 feet because of the takeoffs and landings at Andrews Air Force Base.

Investigators hope four frames from a police-camera video mounted on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge will provide clues.

“They are fairly poor quality,” Mrs. Engleman Connors said. But the helicopter “appeared to be losing altitude in the last frame.”

The helicopter crew apparently had no radio communications before the crash, but investigators still plan to check airport records.

The helicopter was returning to its home base in Stafford, Va., after taking a patient to Washington Hospital Center.

The helicopter was the second belonging to LifeNet/Air Methods Corp. of Englewood, Colo., to crash within a week. The same model hit some trees and crashed in Faulkner, Miss., last Wednesday killing the pilot.

It was the 11th crash of medical flights in the past year, killing 34 persons.

“These flights try to save lives; when you have a double risk, it’s a concern,” Mrs. Engleman Connors said.

Capt. Masser and his crew followed the smell of jet fuel on Monday night to find the crash.

He said that the river was nearing low tide and that the helicopter was found in about 1 to 2 feet of water.

“There was not much intact of the aircraft, and I was really surprised to see someone had survived when we approached the area,” Capt. Masser said.

Mr. Godfrey was taken to Washington Hospital Center with broken bones and bruises. His injuries are not considered life-threatening, and he is listed in fair condition. He is expected to spend a few more days in the hospital.

The rescue operation included crews from the Maryland Natural Resources Police, the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Fairfax County Fire Department and the Prince George’s County Fire Department.

D.C. resident Arthur Stewart was traveling on the bridge and was among the first to report the crash.

“It didn’t seem real,” Mr. Stewart, 39, said. “I thought it would go down and come back up.”

• This article is base in part on wire service reports.

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