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Safety Devices Lacking in Copter Crash

Report: Fire Department probe into March tragedy that killed four doesn't say helmets and other equipment could have saved lives, but some critics do make the claim.


A Fire Department helicopter that killed three firefighters and a young accident victim in a crash last March was not equipped with helmets, tether straps or other safety devices to protect the crew and victim, according to a department report released Tuesday.

Although the long-delayed report on the department's deadliest air disaster did not explore whether the safety equipment would have saved lives, critics said sturdier seats and restraints would have made a difference.

"This was a survivable crash," said Ken Buzzell, president of the firefighters union.

The official cause of the crash, and the adequacy of on-board safety equipment and other so-called survivability factors, are still the subject of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

NTSB officials have already concluded that the tail rotor flew apart because of a fatigue fracture in the rotor assembly, but they continue to study what led to the crack.

Fire Chief William Bamattre, although declining to blame the deaths on outdated safety equipment that came with the chopper, said he has formed a task force to review newer safety equipment.

Tuesday's report does provide a detailed account of the final flight of the chopper, known as "Fire Three," and the seconds that rushed by as the pilot struggled to right the crippled aircraft before it clipped the trees in Griffith Park and plummeted to the ground March 23.

The chain of events that put 11-year-old Norma Vides-Anaya and five firefighters on board the helicopter started at 6:30 a.m., when a sport-utility vehicle rear-ended a city trash truck at Sunland Boulevard and Wheatland Avenue in the San Fernando Valley.

A second city truck stopped to assist, and moments later, it was struck by the Vides-Anaya family's 1986 Toyota.

All seven occupants were injured. Two were immediately airlifted to UCLA Medical Center, and four were sent by ambulance to nearby hospitals. Vides-Anaya initially appeared to have suffered only minor facial cuts.

But after the first helicopter departed, her condition deteriorated. She began losing blood pressure and consciousness, prompting department officials to call for a second helicopter to take her to Childrens Hospital. A helicopter flight would take seven minutes, they estimated, compared to a trip of 30 minutes by ambulance.

The only helicopter available for the job was a Bell 205A-1 chopper, which is not designed or equipped for transporting patients. The department's main "air ambulance" was en route to UCLA, and the rest of its six-chopper fleet was out of service or too small for patients.

As a backup rescue helicopter, "Fire Three" did not have helmets or tether straps on board for the paramedics. The seats and belts in the 22-year-old helicopter were not designed for crash protection, but only "to restrain passengers during routine flight operations," according to the report.

Bamattre said the department now will call the Los Angeles County Fire Department for assistance when its primary rescue helicopters are being used.

Vides-Anaya was placed on a plywood backboard and strapped into the helicopter using the seat belts on the rear-facing bench seat.

The helicopter lifted off and flew toward Childrens Hospital, 11 miles away. But a few minutes into the flight, the tail rotor blades shook loose from the aircraft.

"We're gonna be going in. . . . I think we may have lost the tail rotor," the pilot, Steven Robinson, said over the aircraft intercom.

Robinson was fighting to keep the helicopter flying, and began heading for a clearing near Fern Dell Drive.

Twenty seconds later, the radio crackled again: "Fire Three emergency, gonna put it in."

The crash killed Vides-Anaya, crew member Michael McComb, and paramedics Eric F. Reiner and Michael A. Butler. Robinson and crew member Dennis J. Silgen suffered major injuries.

The girl's family has filed claims against the city for $22.5 million, alleging that negligence led to both the car accident and the helicopter crash. An attorney for the families of the deceased firefighters said he may file a claim against the helicopter manufacturer.

"Tail rotors should not be coming off helicopters," said attorney Clark Aristei.

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