updated 9/27/2009 6:21:38 PM ET 2009-09-27T22:21:38

Federal officials said they have found no evidence of damage or failure on a medical helicopter before it crashed in South Carolina, killing three people.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference Sunday that there was evidence to indicate the helicopter's engine was still running when it went down near Georgetown Friday night.

Sumwalt said the helicopter had maneuvered around two areas of heavy precipitation and had encountered a third area of moderate precipitation when it crashed.

The helicopter had just dropped off a patient at a hospital in Charleston and was flying to Conway, about 90 miles to the northeast, when it crashed about 11:30 p.m.

A thunderstorm had rolled through the Georgetown area shortly before the crash, according to the National Weather Service.

Sumwalt said the crew had reported to its company, Texas-based OmniFlight, that they were trying to land.

The helicopter landed nose-first, was upside-down, and it was "completely unrecognizable, completely consumed in the post-crash fire," Sumwalt said.

The same helicopter, an American Eurocopter AS350B2, was damaged last year after scheduled maintenance on the aircraft was delayed, according to NTSB records.

S_CAROLINA_CRASH
W. Castello  /  AP
Map locates Belle Isle, South Carolina, where a medical transport helicopter crashed
Sumwalt declined to comment on last year's incident, but said its maintenance history would be part of the investigation.

Omniflight identified the crew members killed: Patrick Walters, 45, of Murrells Inlet; flight nurse Diana Conner, 42, of Florence; and paramedic Randolph Claxton Dove, 39, of Bladenboro, N.C.

On its Web site, Omniflight says the company operates 100 aircraft from 72 bases in 18 states with 1,000 employees.

"Omniflight is deeply saddened by the tragic loss of its crew members and wishes to express its deepest regrets and sincerest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives," the company said in a statement.

Omniflight spokesman Joel Hochhalter says the company was suspending service in Conway because the helicopter was the company's only one in that area.

According to the NTSB, a pilot preparing for takeoff from Caffery Heliport in Hiram, Ga., said the same helicopter began to shake violently as he advanced the throttle. Immediately shutting down the helicopter, he told investigators he saw extensive damage to the main rotor.

An audit of maintenance records showed that the rotor should have been replaced almost 600 flight hours earlier, the report showed. Omniflight immediately audited its other helicopters, and no other rotors were shown as overdue for replacement.

NTSB records also show that another similar helicopter, also operated by Omniflight, was involved in another incident in South Carolina. On July 2, another Eurocopter was damaged when it struck steel poles adjacent to the helipad at Loris Community Hospital Heliport.

No one was injured. The pilot continued the landing and performed an emergency engine shutdown, records show.

Earlier this month, NTSB officials urged the government to impose stricter controls on emergency helicopter operators citing last year's record number of fatalities. There were nine accidents between December 2007 and October 2008, killing 35 people.

There have been three accidents since then, but no fatalities reported until the South Carolina crash.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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