SOMERVILLE, Tenn. — Two hospital workers and a pilot were killed when a medical helicopter crashed in Tennessee as the aircraft was headed to pick up an ailing child, officials said Tuesday.
Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital President and CEO Meri Armour said the Hospital Wing helicopter was cleared for both weather and flight plans when it took off Tuesday morning headed to Bolivar (BAW’-luh-vuhr).
“This was a very experienced pilot and a very experienced crew and a great helicopter, so we’re all anxious to know what happened,” Armour said.
When the helicopter didn’t respond during a routine 10-minute check-in around 6:20 a.m., authorities began searching by air and ground. They found the burning wreckage in a wooded area of Somerville, about 45 miles east of Memphis.
WMC-TV in Memphis reported NTSB investigator Ralph Hicks walked through the site Tuesday afternoon. He said everything located in an area of about 100 feet diameter. Investigators will make sure all parts of the helicopter are accounted for as well as look closely at the weather and speak to witnesses.
Armour estimated that the aircraft was about a half-hour into the flight when it went down.
Fayette County Sheriff’s Office Inspector Ray Garcia spoke by phone from the scene.
“There not very much left of (the helicopter), and what little there is is badly burned,” he said. “It’s just basically debris at this point.”
Garcia said the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are conducting the investigation into what happened.
As for the weather for the time of the crash, Corey Chaskelson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Memphis, said there were clouds at about 4,000 to 5,000 feet, but “we do not know if weather was a factor.”
In a news release, the hospital identified those killed as 47-year-old pilot Charles Smith, 43-year-old nurse Carrie Barlow and 43-year-old respiratory therapist Denise Adams.
Barlow worked as a nurse in West Tennessee for 13 years. She lived in Halls with her husband, Keith, and was the mother to three children.
Adams had served as the hospital’s Pedi-Flite respiratory therapist for the past eight years. She lived in Arlington with her husband, Rodney, and was the mother to three children.
Smith began his career at Hospital Wing in 2012, the same year he retired from the aviation unit of the Memphis Police Department after 25 years of service. He lived with his wife, Chi, and their two sons in Eads.
The sick child was not aboard the aircraft and was eventually taken by ground ambulance to Le Bonheur, Armour said.
According to a news release, Le Bonheur offers the only pediatric transport service in a 130-mile radius and takes more than 400 critically ill or injured children by helicopter each year. Hospital Wing is a non-profit air medical transport partnership with Le Bonheur and other Memphis-area hospitals.
Another Hospital Wing helicopter crashed in West Tennessee in March 2010 when the pilot tried to outrun a storm. That crash killed the pilot and two nurses.
At that time, improving the safety of emergency medical services flights was on the NTSB’s “most wanted improvements” list.
It first made the list in 2008, a year when the industry suffered a record 28 fatalities in seven helicopter accidents. The agency’s focus on the problem may have had some impact.
According to statistics provided by NTSB, 2011 and 2012 each saw only one fatal helicopter emergency medical services crash. But those numbers began to creep up again this year. Including Tuesday’s accident, 2013 has seen 5 fatal helicopter EMS crashes with 12 killed.