Md. Copter Crash Scrutinized

A Maryland State Police rescue helicopter crashed in Prince George's County's Walker Mill Regional Park over the weekend.
By Megan Greenwell, Aaron C. Davis and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Maryland State Police medical rescue helicopter that crashed over the weekend, killing four people, was not equipped with a terrain-awareness system that could have warned the pilot that he was flying dangerously close to a grove of trees, a National Transportation Safety Board member said yesterday.

Air safety investigators are also examining whether mechanical failure, navigation system problems or pilot error contributed to the crash into a densely wooded Prince George's County park just before midnight Saturday.

And they are looking into the rescue mission itself, particularly whether the injuries suffered by two teenagers in a Southern Maryland car wreck were serious enough to warrant helicopter travel at night in rain and fog.

Stephanie Younger, whose daughter died in the helicopter crash, said the teen was well enough to call her on the cellphone after the car accident and had no obvious injuries, just pains in her chest. "If the weather is already bad, why would you put a child by herself without a parent in a helicopter?" Younger asked in an interview yesterday.

State emergency management officials said the rescue mission was justified, and federal officials said the weather was relatively good at the start of the mission. One air safety investigator called Maryland's program the "gold standard" for rescue helicopter services.

The 12 rescue helicopters remained grounded yesterday.

State police spokesman Greg Shipley confirmed that only three of those helicopters have terrain-warning systems, which the NTSB has recommended using for more than two years. But some experts and rescue workers said they are not certain that the system would have prevented the helicopter crash, given the worsening weather Saturday night.

About the decision to deploy the American Eurocopter Dauphin II helicopter, Shipley said there is a set protocol that calls for using a helicopter if travel time to the nearest trauma center would top 30 minutes. "We don't fly around dropping in on crashes, saying we'll take this one and not that one," he said.

Robert R. Bass, who oversees the state's emergency management services as executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, said his agency's examination of the mission shows proper procedures were followed.

"In our review of the charts, they met the criteria for transport to a trauma center and for use of a helicopter," Bass said in an interview yesterday.

The crash occurred at a time when some legislators are questioning the helicopter unit's cost-effectiveness and its field triage system for determining when to transport victims. Nearly half of those transported in fiscal 2007 left the hospital within 24 hours, according to state figures.

A recent audit found that the state police lacked reliable data systems to track maintenance requirements and that the unit had high employee turnover.

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