- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Federal aviation officials are investigating the cause of a MedStar helicopter crash Tuesday afternoon that injured three crew members and might have contributed to the death of the patient on board.

The crash occurred at about 4:50 p.m. when a medical transport flight from Greater Southeast Community Hospital to Washington Hospital Center crashed on a golf course near the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest.

The patient, Steven Gaston, 51, of Southeast, was in critical condition before the crash, said Dr. Janis M. Orlowski, chief medical officer and senior vice president of Washington Hospital Center.

After the crash, Mr. Gaston was taken into surgery for internal bleeding, Dr. Orlowski said. He later was moved to the intensive care unit and was pronounced dead at 11:35 p.m. Tuesday.

Dr. Orlowski would not discuss Mr. Gaston’s medical situation before the crash but said that hospital officials were waiting for a medical examiner’s report to determine whether the crash contributed to his death.

“Our initial thought looking at Mr. Gaston and his complicated medical history … there was grave concern that he would not live through the day, and this was before the incident,” she said.

Officials at the scene — which included two D.C. assistant fire chiefs who had been riding in a U.S. Park Police helicopter — said Mr. Gaston had a breathing tube in place and that the tube was dislodged as a result of the crash.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department, said the department’s medical director, Amit Wadhwa, responded to the scene and replaced the breathing tube.

“The patient was breathing by the time they took him to the hospital,” Mr. Etter said.

A woman who answered the phone at Mr. Gaston’s home yesterday said the family did not want to comment about the crash “at the moment.”

The helicopter’s pilot, Darryl Johnson, 58, of Damascus, Md., suffered a spinal fracture in the crash and underwent surgery yesterday morning. Hospital officials said he was in serious but stable condition and was not paralyzed from the injury.

Flight paramedic David Martin, 33, of Haymarket, Va., suffered broken ribs and a lower-spine injury but did not require surgery.

Flight nurse Nancy Vanderweele, 39, of Silver Spring, suffered a cervical-spine injury and fractures in her shoulder and left tibia.

Dr. Orlowski said Miss Vanderweele will have to wear a cervical collar for about two months. Hospital officials said both Miss Vanderweele and Mr. Martin are in serious but stable condition.

“They are alert; they are responding and participating in our current discussions,” Dr. Orlowski said.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are investigating the crash, which was the first in more than 40,000 patient transports in MedStar Transport’s 23-year history in the region, hospital officials said.

The NTSB, which is leading the investigation, did not release details yesterday about the cause of the crash.

Sources with the FAA told The Washington Times that the helicopter experienced a “catastrophic systems failure” prior to the crash.

Officials said the helicopter, a Eurocopter EC 135P1, had undergone its most recent scheduled maintenance inspection in April.

The aircraft left Greater Southeast at 4:39 p.m., and Mr. Johnson issued a mayday five minutes later. Witnesses said the helicopter went down near a tree on the eighth hole of a golf course at the retirement home in the 3700 block of North Capitol Street Northwest.

Mr. Johnson has been a pilot for 38 years. He is employed by C.J. Systems Aviation Group, the Pittsburgh-based vendor that owns and operates the helicopter. He had logged about 1,000 hours of flight time on the EC 135P1-type helicopter and more than 15,500 flight hours during his career, officials said.

Larry Pietropaulo, president and chief operating officer of C.J. Systems Aviation Group, said yesterday that it appeared Mr. Johnson initially approached the hospital’s helicopter landing pad but then diverted toward the golf course.

“Sometime en route the pilot experienced a problem,” Mr. Pietropaulo said.

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