- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2008

Federal safety officials investigating a fatal Maryland State Police helicopter crash early Sunday morning say preliminary reports show weather conditions deteriorated quickly from the time the craft was dispatched to when it lost radio contact with police one hour later.

Visibility decreased from seven miles at 10:55 p.m., shortly before State Police dispatched the medevac helicopter to a car crash in Charles County, to four miles at 11:55 p.m. - the last time the crew made radio contact with police, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said Sunday evening. The cloud ceiling dropped from 1,300 feet to 500 feet over the same time, the spokesman said.

The helicopter crashed in a densely wooded section of the 470-acre Walker Mill Regional Park in District Heights. Rain and thick fog slowed the search.

A police officer discovered the wreckage with four dead and one survivor about two hours later, off a trail.

“This is a devastating tragedy for the families of all the victims,” said State Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan.

Investigators said the pilot radioed twice for help during the roughly 50-mile return trip from the accident in Charles County to Prince George’s Hospital. The aircraft, carrying a three-member crew and two injured passengers, was diverted to Andrews Air Force Base because of the weather. On the approach to the base, the runway location was changed and the pilot radioed that he was having trouble assessing his surroundings. He again asked for assistance with the landing, and that was the last air traffic controllers heard from him.

Ambulances were sent to the base to transport the female accident victims the final 13 miles to the hospital, but the helicopter never arrived.

Federal authorities are investigating the cause of the crash, the deadliest in the state’s medevac program, and expect to file a preliminary report next week. They had not decided Sunday night whether to remove the wreckage from the park, about seven miles north of the base.

The victims were identified as pilot Stephen H. Bunker, 59, of Waldorf; Trooper 1st Class Mickey C. Lippy, 34, a flight paramedic from Westminster; Tanya Mallard, 39, an emergency medical technician from Waldorf; and patient Ashley Youngler, 17, of Waldorf.

The survivor was identified as Jordan Wells, 18, of Waldorf, who was in critical condition Sunday night at Prince George’s Hospital Center.

State police dispatched the Trooper 2 helicopter to the scene of the accident, near Waldorf, at 11 p.m. Saturday.

Miss Youngler and Miss Wells were passengers in a 2003 Ford Taurus that veered across a median strip on Smallwood Drive, hit several trees, then returned to the northbound lanes and struck a 1994 Honda CRX, according to the Charles County Sheriff’s Office.

Kristen Timko, a department spokeswoman, said she could not say who was driving.

The passengers of the Honda were taken by ambulance to a hospital.

The accident scene was about seven miles from the site of another tragic crash earlier this year in Accokeek, where a car plowed into a crowd that had been watching a drag race, killing eight people.

The medevac crash Sunday was the deadliest in Maryland since State Police began flying such missions nearly 40 years ago. It was the eighth such fatal crash in the past 12 months nationwide. About 30 people have died during that period, said National Transportation Safety Board official Debbie Hersman.

The number of crashes involving medical aircraft has been increasing since the 1990s, in part because of the increasing number of missions, fueled by the closing of emergency rooms in rural areas and an aging population, according to the National EMS Pilots Association. However, the state-run program in Maryland does not charge for its services and was known for its safety record. It has recorded three other fatal helicopter crashes in four decades.

“We are the only operation in the country that has the multiple mission of medevac, search and rescue, law enforcement, homeland security,” state police spokesman Greg Shipley said. “It’s a very unique situation.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley issued a statement Sunday afternoon.

“On behalf of all Marylanders, we extend our heartfelt condolences to the families, friends, and colleagues” of the victims, said Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat. “Their sacrifice is a tragic and sobering reminder that even when most of us are asleep, our first responders are still protecting us, regardless of conditions, risking their lives to help others.”

Mr. Bunker retired from the State Police after 26 years and had been a civilian pilot for the unit since 1989. Trooper Lippy had been with the State Police for four years.

The last fatal medevac crash for the Maryland State Police Aviation Command was in 1986 when a helicopter went down in fog in West Baltimore, killing two troopers who had just transported a shooting victim to a hospital.

The unit had two fatal helicopter crashes in the 1970s. It began medevac missions in 1970 and has since transported more than 120,000 patients, none of whom has been billed for the service, according to the unit’s Web site.

A recent state legislative audit faulted the State Police for failing to document maintenance needs and costs for its fleet of 12 twin-engine helicopters. Nine of them are older than 18, including the second-oldest Trooper 2 that crashed Sunday. The helicopter, purchased in 1989, underwent an inspection Wednesday, Superintendent Sheridan said.

State Police have defended the helicopter command, and the audit noted that the operation is regarded highly throughout the country and has an “impeccable” safety record.

State budget troubles have forced lawmakers to extend spending $110 million on the new helicopters from three years to four years.

The safety board has called for a public hearing on the recent increase in medical helicopter accidents, Miss Hersman said, though no date had been set.

A federal investigation in 2006 found that 55 air-ambulance accidents were reported from 2002 to 2005, prompting the safety board to issue four recommendations, including higher standards for medical aircraft and more stringent decision-making in determining whether to fly in bad weather.

Officials said the helicopter, which investigators have kept from view since the crash, was cleared to fly by Andrews Air Force Base.

Crashes in Texas, Wisconsin and Arizona, where two medical helicopters were in a fiery collision in June, have underscored the dangers of the medical flights. Some have questioned whether it would be safer to transport patients by ground ambulance.

Dr. Bryan Bledsoe, an emergency medicine physician who teaches at the University of Nevada and has researched accident rates of medical helicopters, said Sunday that the Maryland medevac system has a good safety record, but medical flights are overused nationwide.

“We’ve just gotten into a situation here in the United States where we think that the helicopters are a panacea,” Dr. Bledsoe said. “And they are an important tool, but they are just a tool. We vastly overuse them, patients don’t benefit and they are expensive.”

He said medevacs often fly in questionable weather and that the flights aren’t justified in many cases because the distance to the nearest hospital is not that great or the injuries are not severe enough, he said.

An aunt of Miss Mallard, the medical technician killed in the crash, said she was proud of her niece’s work.

“I lost someone I truly, truly love, I’m sorry for everybody else’s loss,” said the aunt, Cheri Douglas. “My family is truly, truly hurt.’ ”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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