A medical helicopter carrying victims of a traffic accident crashed in a suburban Washington park early Sunday after reporting bad weather, killing four of the five people aboard, authorities said.
It was the deadliest medevac helicopter accident in Maryland since the State Police began flying those missions nearly 40 years ago and the latest in a recent rise in the number of such crashes nationwide.
It was the eighth fatal medical helicopter crash in the last 12 months, bringing the total number of deaths to about 30 during that period, National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said.
Crashes of medical aircraft have been increasing since the 1990s, in part because it is a booming business, fueled by the closing of emergency rooms in rural areas and an aging population, according to the National EMS Pilots Association. However, the state-run program in Maryland does not charge for its services, and was known for its safety record. It has had just three other fatal helicopter crashes in four decades.
'Devastating tragedy for the families'
On Sunday, a veteran pilot, a flight paramedic, a county emergency medical technician and one of the traffic accident victims died in the crash, authorities said.
An 18-year-old woman also injured in the traffic accident in Charles County survived the helicopter crash. She was in critical condition at a hospital.
"This is a devastating tragedy for the families of all the victims," State Police Superintendent Terrence Sheridan said.
It was foggy and rainy in the area about the time of the crash. The helicopter was headed on a roughly 25-mile trip from the traffic accident to the hospital when the crew radioed just before midnight Saturday that they wanted to land at their hangar at Andrews Air Force Base because of bad weather. Ambulances were sent to the base, which is about halfway between the traffic accident site and Prince George's county hospital, but the helicopter never arrived.
The medevac disappeared from radar and officials lost radio contact. Two hours later, a police officer found the wreckage on a trail in a wooded area of a local park.
The NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration were investigating.
The recent increase has triggered the safety board to hold a public hearing on the matter, Hersman said, though no date had been set.
A federal investigation in 2006 found there were 55 accidents air ambulance accidents from 2002 to 2005, prompting the safety board to issue four recommendations, including higher standards for medical aircraft and more stringent decision-making in determining whether to fly in bad weather.
Ground ambulances safer?
Crashes in Texas, Wisconsin and Arizona, where two medical helicopters were in a fiery collision in June, have underscored the dangers of the medical flights. Some have questioned whether it would be safer to transport patients by ground ambulance.
Dr. Bryan Bledsoe, an emergency medicine physician who teaches at the University of Nevada and has researched accident rates of medical helicopters, told The Associated Press in June that the flights benefit only a small subset of patients. He said then that helicopters aren't necessary for transporting most other patients and needlessly expose them to danger.
Killed in the crash Sunday were pilot Stephen Bunker, 59; flight paramedic Mickey Lippy, 34; emergency medical technician Tanya Mallard, 39; and 18-year-old Ashley Younger.
Bunker retired from the State Police after 26 years and had been a civilian pilot for the unit since 1989. Lippy had been with the State Police for four years.
Younger and Jordan Wells, both of Charles County, were involved in the traffic accident.
The Maryland State Police Aviation Command began medevac missions in 1970 and has since transported over 120,000 patients, according to the unit's Web site.
A recent state legislative audit faulted the police agency for failing to document maintenance needs and costs for its fleet of 12 twin-engine helicopters. Nine of them are more than 18 years old, including the second-oldest Trooper 2 that crashed Sunday. The helicopter, purchased in 1989, had an inspection Wednesday, Sheridan said.
State Police have defended the helicopter command, and the audit noted the unit had an "impeccable" safety record.
State Police have grounded all of their flights until the cause of the crash can be determined. Other states and private companies will cover Maryland in the meantime, Sheridan said.