The charred wreckage of a medical helicopter sits in a snowy field two miles… (Jeff Heinz/Globe Gazette )
Three people died when a medical helicopter crashed in a snowy field in northern Iowa.
The helicopter crashed about 9 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after it left Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa in Mason City, about 17 miles east, headed to Emmetsburg, about 78 miles west, to pick up a patient, who was eventually transferred by ground.
Among those killed were flight nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau, paramedic Russell Piehl and the pilot, Gene Grell.
Lair-Langenbau had worked at the hospital for 15 years, Piehl for five years.
“This is a very tragic time for Mercy North Iowa, the whole north Iowa community and really healthcare providers across north Iowa,” hospital president and chief executive Dan Varnum said at a news conference Thursday, describing the pair as “caring, compassionate people ... selfless healthcare workers who gave their lives to providing care for others.”
“Their colleagues are grieving their loss,” he said.
Varnum said the cause of the crash was still unknown Thursday morning, but that investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were at the crash site in Ventura, Iowa, about 30 miles south of the Minnesota border.
Butch Kozisek told the Mason City Globe Gazette that he was startled by the sound of the helicopter flying low and saw "one heck of an explosion" from his home less than a mile from the 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 field was among areas inundated with snow a week and a half ago due to a Midwest storm, and officials had to use snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to reach the wreckage, a hospital spokesman told The Times.
Fred Buttrell, president of Dallas-based Med Trans Air Medical Transport, which operated the helicopter, called the crash “gut-wrenching.”
He said the Bell 407 helicopter involved was new, put into service in April 2011, with 955 flight hours, in compliance with daily checks and maintenance.
He described Grell as “an experienced EMS pilot.” Hired in September, Grell started flying for the company the following month and was “very well regarded by the crew members ... a very diligent, checklist-oriented type of individual,” Buttrell said. He worked seven-day, 12-hour shifts and was in the process of relocating to Iowa, Buttrell said.
Buttrell said there was no indication it was unsafe to fly Wednesday night, but that the decision was not Grell’s alone.
“We always had a saying, ‘Three to go, one to say no.’ If anyone was uncomfortable, we would not do it,” Buttrell said.
He said officials at the company were in communication with the helicopter during the flight and there was no indication of problems before the crash.
“There were no SOS type of things,” he said, adding that at the time of the crash, the helicopter was,“heading in the right direction at the right altitude.”
He said the FAA had officials at the crash site investigating as of 1 a.m. Thursday, as did his company.
Buttrell said the helicopter was “equipped with all the latest technologies” including night vision goggles and satellite tracking; however it did not have a "black box."
Buttrell, who joined the company seven years ago, said they have not had an accident on his watch, however under different ownership they did have a crash in 2004.
The hospital serves a 14-county area and makes 500 medical flights a year, including 327 patient transports, officials said. The program, staffed by five flight nurses, four pilots, a handful of paramedics and two mechanics, was temporarily suspended Thursday but Varnum said they plan to continue using Med Trans.
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