There are no immediate explanations for the crash of an air ambulance out of Visalia that killed three crew members and a critically ill patient who was being transported, a federal official said Friday.
Helicopter crew dies in crash Thomas Hampl, 49, pilot Marco Lopez, 42, critical-care nurse Kyle Juarez, 37, paramedic
Joshua Cawthra, of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in a late-afternoon news conference at the remote crash scene that the Bell 407 helicopter did not appear to have struck nearby power lines. Rather, the SkyLife Air Ambulance helicopter was at “cruising flight” from Porterville to Bakersfield.
“For some reason, the aircraft impacted terrain,” Cawthra said, who added there was no fire on impact. “There are no reported witnesses to the accident … if anyone saw or heard anything, please contact the NTSB.”
Todd Valeri, the head of American Ambulance, which runs the Skylife service, identified the pilot and medical staff killed in the crash during a news conference Friday.
The pilot was Thomas Hampl, 49, an employee of Rogers Helicopters for three years. The critical-care nurse on the aircraft was Marco Lopez, 42, a three-year SkyLife veteran. And the paramedic was Kyle Juarez, 37, a nine-year veteran at American Ambulance who spent the last three years on the SkyLife team. Both of the medical staff were from Fresno, according to public records.
Valeri described Lopez as highly dedicated and “a really smart guy.” Juarez had an outgoing personality and “would light up a room,” he added.
Valeri said a female patient was being transported, but he declined to offer any other details, citing confidentiality rules.
Investigating the crash
The helicopter was flying to San Joaquin Community Hospital when it went down in an area of rangeland near Highway 65 and Sherwood Avenue east of McFarland.
The NTSB is the lead agency investigating the crash.
Cawthra said Hampl was a commercially rated pilot who was also approved to be a flight instructor.
No record of any radio transmissions have been found, he said. Cawthra added the altitude of the flight is still being determined.
The wreckage will be removed from the crash site on Saturday and taken to Sacramento for further analysis, said Cawthra, a senior aviation accident investigator for the agency.
“We will focus on man, machine and the environment,” he said.
The wreckage was spread out over 465 feet, he said. “The debris is fairly fragmented,” Cawthra said.
But “all major components are present,” including the engine and airframe, he said.
The helicopter crashed in a hilly area used for cattle grazing. The victims were partially inside the helicopter, he said.
A preliminary report about the crash will be ready in four or five days, he said.
Ray Pruitt, public information officer of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, said the helicopter’s tail was separated from the rest of the aircraft. He said the tail was about 30 yards from the helicopter’s cab, which remained relatively intact.
“It looks like the tail broke off,” Pruitt said.
By midafternoon Friday, all four bodies were recovered and taken to the coroner’s office in Bakersfield, Pruitt said.
The nurse and paramedic originally assigned to the Skylife helicopter Thursday night traded the shift with Lopez and Juarez to attend the company’s Christmas party, Valeri said.
Despite the need for round-the-clock staffing, 327 of the 600 American Ambulance employees attended the gala. Valeri learned that the helicopter missed a positioning report just after 7 p.m.
“That does happen,” he said. “We didn’t automatically think the worst.”
Valeri said the dispatcher working Thursday night “had a gut feeling” and notified him. The next 90 minutes went by “really, really slow” as Valeri and other senior staff of the company waited for confirmation. They got it around 9 p.m., and he notified the employees at the party.
“The party was over at that point.”
The employees gathered in clusters outside the company’s Herndon Avenue office in Clovis as Valeri and Dan Lynch, emergency medical services director for Fresno County, briefed reporters inside.
They were very well liked, these individuals.
Dan Lynch, EMS director for Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties, on the crew killed in Thursday’s crash
Of the employees who were killed: “They were wonderful people. It’s just so tragic and devastating,” Valeri said.
SkyLife Air Ambulance operates three air ambulance helicopters out of the Fresno and Visalia airports. Valeri said SkyLife has never had a helicopter go down since the partnership with Rogers was formed in 1991. The air ambulance transports about 1,000 patients a year, he said.
The SkyLife team has about 25 medical staff and 12 pilots who work together in alternating shifts.
“It’s a very tight-knit group,” Valeri said.
Sequence of events
Lynch gave this account of the crash:
The crew responded to Porterville to pick up the patient from Sierra View Medical Center for transport to San Joaquin Community Hospital. At 6:52 p.m., the crew notified flight dispatch that it was leaving Porterville.
About 7:05 p.m., dispatch tried to raise the helicopter for a routine check in, but got no response. After checking with airport towers in Fresno and Bakersfield, the dispatch center notified Kern County authorities that the aircraft was missing and provided its last GPS reading east of McFarland.
A Kern County sheriff’s helicopter reported about 8:35 p.m. that it had found a debris field. Kern County deputies and fire crews, slowed by fog and darkness, reached the scene about 10 p.m. and confirmed that the patient and the crew of three had perished.
Lynch said the discovery was likely painful for Kern County fire and sheriff’s personnel since they would have met the air crew at crashes and other medical emergencies requiring air transport.
“They were very well liked, these individuals,” Lynch said.
Valeri said weather conditions are always a factor in such flights, but the crew would have checked the weather before lifting off.
Recent fatal air crashes in the San Joaquin Valley
Oct. 7, 2014: Cal Fire tanker outside Yosemite National Park
killed was pilot Geoffrey Craig Hunt, 62
April 11, 2014: single-engine amateur-built Bowers Fly Baby 1A at airport west of Mariposa
killed was pilot Don Corn
Jan. 7, 2013: single-engine Beechcraft, in Kern County foothills
killed were pilot James Floyd Johnston, 72, (Clovis contractor, owner of Floyd Johnston Construction) and Jacob Curiel of Imperial
Jan. 5, 2010: Bell 206 helicopter clipped a power line and crashed in a mountainous area of eastern Madera County
killed were Fish and Game employees from Fresno: Clu Cotter, 48, an associate biologist; biologist supervisor Kevin O’Connor, 40; and Tom Stolberg, 31, a seasonal aide. Also killed was pilot Dennis Donovan of Palm Springs
Jan. 18, 2008: single-engine Beechcraft crashed in a vineyard near Nebraska and Peach avenues, southeast of Fresno
killed was pilot Robert Gilman Mollring, 78, of Sanger
Sept. 6, 2006: a state Department of Forestry spotter airplane crashed in the mountains of southeastern Tulare County near Springville
killed were Robert Paul Stone, 36, of Visalia, a Cal Fire battalion chief, and pilot George “Sandy” Willet, 52
Jan. 13, 2006: Piper Twin Comanche crashed 100 yards short of the Visalia Municipal Airport runway
killed were Bernard Sinor, 67, his wife, Betty, 57, and grandchildren Jorjanna McKeah Plumlee, 6, and Kyndall Plumlee, 3, of Brentwood
April 7, 2005: four-seat Cessna T-210L broke up in flight and spiraled out of control into a field in western Fresno County
killed were pilot Karl Frederick Esposti, 50, of Windsor; Thomas Hobart, 58, of Healdsburg; and Kieran Collins “K.C.” Burke, 49, of Geyserville
June 13, 2003: crop-dusting helicopter plummeted to the ground after taking off from an alfalfa field west of Porterville
killed was Bakersfield pilot Phillip Rutledge, 54
compiled by Ashley Gravano, Fresno Bee librarian