Wreckage from Thursday’s crash of the SkyLife medical helicopter that went down near McFarland, killing four people, was moved Saturday to Sacramento for further investigation, said Terry Williams, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
It was unclear if there still is more wreckage to be moved. Williams said the yearlong investigation into the cause of the crash will take into account several factors, including weather, the pilot’s record and maintenance that had been done on the Bell 407 helicopter.
The crash has taken an emotional toll on employees of American Ambulance. President Todd Valeri said there was a social gathering Saturday night at which nurses, EMTs and others would undoubtedly grieve the loss of their co-workers. In addition to the pilot, a nurse, a paramedic and a patient died in the crash.
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 members were from Fresno, according to public records. The patient has not been identified yet by the Kern County coroner.
A nurse and a paramedic originally assigned to the SkyLife helicopter Thursday night had traded shifts with Lopez and Juarez so they could attend the company’s Christmas party, Valeri said.
The crash happened as the helicopter was transporting a patient in critical condition from Porterville to Bakersfield.
SkyLife Air Ambulance operates three air ambulance helicopters out of the Fresno and Visalia airports.
The crew picked up the patient from Sierra View Medical Center and was bound for San Joaquin Community Hospital. At 6:52 p.m., the crew had 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.
SkyLife Air Ambulance operates three air ambulance helicopters out of the Fresno and Visalia airports. Valeri said Friday that 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.