Three killed in Mason City medical helicopter crashPublished 1:49pm Thursday, January 3, 2013
VENTURA, Iowa — A nurse, a paramedic and a pilot died when a medical helicopter crashed and burst into flames in a field in northern Iowa.
No patient was on board the helicopter from Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa when it slammed into the ground just north of Ventura in Cerro Gordo County about 9 p.m. Wednesday.
The hospital identified two of the victims as employees: nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau and paramedic Russell Piehl. The pilot was not identified.
Hospital President and CEO Dan Varnum said, while the two “fulfilled significant duties, they played a greater role as our neighbors and friends.”
About a year ago, a medical helicopter crash in Florida killed three, including a heart surgeon and technician from the Mayo Clinic in Florida. Investigators still are looking into the cause. Dr. Luis Bonilla and procurement technician David Hines were flying from Jacksonville to Gainesville to retrieve a heart for transplant when their helicopter crashed Dec. 26, 2011. They were killed along with the pilot, E. Hoke Smith, of SK Logistics, in St. Augustine.
On Wednesday night, Butch Kozisek said he had been startled by the sound of the helicopter flying low and that he saw “one heck of an explosion” from his home less than a mile from the snowy crash site.
“Me and the wife were looking out the window and wondering what it was, and then the sound quit for about a second or two, and then just a big ball of fire at ground level,” Kozisek said.
The helicopter was operated by a Lewisville, Texas-based company, Med-Trans Air Medical Transport. The Associated Press left messages with company officials early Thursday seeking comment.
Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa spokeswoman Jodi Ball said the helicopter had been headed to Emmetsburg to pick up a patient. Emmetsburg is 78 miles west of Mason City. Ventura sits 17 miles west of Mason City.
The hospital is cooperating with law enforcement and the FAA in investigating the crash.
Officials used snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to reach the wreckage.
KarrieJo VanderPloeg, of rural Clear Lake, said she was on her way home with her family when they “saw the sky light up.”
She said it was scary because they didn’t know what it was.
They drove on gravel roads until they came upon the crash site.
VanderPloeg said they saw someone walking around with a flashlight, but they didn’t get out of the car because their children were with them.
Med-Trans Corp., headquartered in Dallas, entered into a contract with Mercy-North Iowa to provide air service on Feb. 1, 2011. The hospital said the decision to go with the company followed a 12-month selection process.
Patti Peterson, director of the Mercy Emergency Department, Mercy Air Med and Mercy Family Health Line, said when the contract was announced, “Med-Trans is one of the nation’s leading air medical services and has an excellent safety record. Med-Trans has partnered with numerous hospitals across the country to provide the highest level of aviation support for superior MedEvac operations.”
The company provides the helicopter, pilots and other personnel. The helicopter features the latest EMS technology and safety features, including night vision goggles and satellite communication technology. It is also faster and has a longer range than the previous Mercy North-Iowa helicopter.
The helicopter accommodates one patient and three crew members: a nurse, a paramedic and a pilot.