A toddler being flown to a hospital died in a fiery helicopter crash with three crew members when the aircraft clipped a radio tower wire and went down in a suburban Chicago field, authorities said Thursday.
Federal authorities said they were investigating whether the tower's lights were on at the time of the fatal crash minutes before midnight Wednesday — the sixth involving medical helicopters in the U.S. this year. Meanwhile, about 1,000 people who live near the 734-foot tower were advised to leave their homes because of damage to the structure.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Brannen said the helicopter was flying about 50 feet lower than the top of the tower when the wire was hit.
"I can say that when I was out here last night after the accident that the lights on the tower were not lit," Brannen said. He said the NTSB was investigating whether the lights could have been knocked out during the incident.
'We love Kirstin'
The Air Angels helicopter was carrying 1-year-old Kirstin Blockinger to Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago when it crashed just before midnight.
Nearly a dozen members of the girl's family visited the site of the crash late Thursday afternoon, filing through tall grass to see the wreckage, one clutching a brown teddy bear and pink roses.
"We love Kirstin and celebrate her life, however short," said her grandfather Steve Ogletree, who also offered condolences to the Air Angels crew and family members.
Eva Blockinger told The Associated Press that her great-granddaughter often was ill and suffered from seizures.
"She was in and out of the hospital a lot," said Blockinger, 89, of Leland. "It was a regular occurrence."
Tower's integrity assessed
A snapped wire hung from the tower across a busy road from where a twisted helicopter rotor blade could be seen near the field's edge. The crash site farther back was secured by yellow police tape and not visible from the road.
Aurora police Sgt. Chris Whitfield said that after engineers assessed the tower, residents within 1,000 feet of it were advised to evacuate their homes. Police said engineers will use a helicopter to make repairs starting Friday.
Authorities removed the helicopter's yellow-and-white rotor from the scene Thursday afternoon, using a front-end loader to lift the badly mangled blade onto a flatbed truck.
Air Angels CEO Jim Adams said operations at the Bolingbrook-based emergency medical transport service were being suspended while the company worked with NTSB investigators.
The crew members killed were pilot Del Waugh, 69, of Carmel, Ind.; paramedic Ronald Battiato, 41, of Peotone, Ill.; and nurse William Mann, 31, of Chicago. Waugh, a Vietnam vet who worked for Air Angels since 2006, had at least 4,000 hours of helicopter flying experience, said Michael Dermont, the company's director of business development.
Dermont said the company was devastated.
"It's like losing a member of the family," Dermont said. "It takes a certain personality to do what we do — and each one of those guys had a heart of gold."
The company, Dermont said, always makes safety a No. 1 priority.
"We are very safe program," he said. "But we as an organization have to step back and look at all the factors. Is there something we could have done different? That process will start already this evening."
Change of hospitals
Kirstin had been in the emergency room at Valley West Hospital in Sandwich on Wednesday night before it was decided she would be taken to Children's Memorial. Valley West does not have a pediatric critical care unit, said Valley West spokeswoman Allison Bryan.
There was a closer hospital that had the level of pediatric critical care the girl needed, but it had no beds available, Pesch said. The crash occurred before the helicopter would have reached either hospital.
Kirstin's father is a National Guardsman who was training in Kansas to be deployed to Afghanistan, Eva Blockinger said.
He also is a member of the Leland Volunteer Fire Department, along with several members of the Blockinger family, according to Fire Chief Don Hecathorn. The department had been called to Kirstin's home Wednesday evening for the girl's seizures, Hecathorn said.
Hecathorn said Blockinger family members have lived in Leland, a town of just more than 1,000, for years.
"There's nothing much to say," Hecathorn said. "They're just real good people."
Thursday's accident was the 11th crash this year, and the sixth fatal one, involving medical helicopters nationwide, according to NTSB data.
Others included one last month when a medevac helicopter carrying car accident victims crashed in suburban Washington, D.C., killing four onboard. A mid-air crash of two medical helicopters near a Flagstaff, Ariz., hospital in June killed seven.
The NTSB plans to hold a public hearing on medical helicopter crashes sometime next year to look into the recent increases in accident rates, said NTSB spokesman Terry Williams.
The Aurora crash was the second involving Air Angels helicopters since its inception in 1998. A January 2003 crash that killed a pilot was later determined to be caused by pilot error and weather. Mechanical problems were blamed for an August 2007 forced landing in which there were no injuries.