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.
But the audit praised the unit's safety record. Yesterday's crash was its fourth fatal helicopter accident since 1972.
The crash victims included retired state trooper Stephen J. Bunker, 59, who was working as a civilian pilot and was considered a very able flier. Also killed were Trooper Mickey C. Lippy, 34, an onboard paramedic; Tonya Mallard, 39, a volunteer emergency worker from Southern Maryland; and Ashley J. Younger, 17, a recent high school graduate from Waldorf and one of the two car crash victims onboard.
Jordan Wells, 18, of Waldorf, the driver of the car in which Younger was injured, was recovering from surgery yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
Deciding when to call in helicopters is difficult, officials said. Local paramedics who respond are supposed to follow a "field triage decision tree," Bass said.
At the Saturday night car crash, the use of a helicopter was supported by the victims' injuries, officials said. Between them, there were complaints of chest, neck and side pains, and the victims were cut, Bass said.
"Chest pains could be a sign of internal bleeding," said Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. "It's tough for paramedics to make that call on the road. They would err on the side of caution, especially in remote areas."
Officials who were at the car crash scene in Charles County also noted that the interior of the car was crushed, which is a factor in deciding whether to call in a helicopter, Bass said.
Even those critical of the air rescue industry's safety record said that on a case-by-case basis, it can be difficult to second-guess rescue workers who get to the scene first and have to decide whether to call in a helicopter. There is no CAT scan machine on the side of a rainy road at 11 p.m.
"Thank God I didn't have to make that call," Susan P. Baker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, said of the Southern Maryland crash.
Baker called work on rescue helicopters "a hellishly dangerous occupation." She estimated that a pilot or medic who flies 20 hours a week for 20 years has a 15 to 20 percent chance of being killed in a crash.
The weekend crash was one of eight fatal rescue helicopter crashes nationwide in the past 12 months, resulting in 31 fatalities, said Debbie Hersman, a member of the NTSB.
"We are very concerned about the safety of this part of the industry," Hersman said. "If it's not safe, you shouldn't go."
Officials also discussed details yesterday of the search for the downed helicopter in a densely wooded part of Prince George's, three miles north of Andrews Air Force Base. The helicopter struck at least one tree 80 feet above the ground, officials said.
Searchers feared that the helicopter's emergency locator transmitter had either failed to activate or had been destroyed on impact, officials said. With state police growing increasingly desperate, Verizon Wireless was called at 1 a.m. to try to track the cellphone signals of crew members.
Two hours and seven minutes elapsed between the time the helicopter disappeared from radar and when officers radioed that they had found the wreckage.
At 1:02 a.m., Verizon reported one of the crew member's cellphones was working and its signal was being received by a tower on East Hampton Drive, about a mile from Walker Mill Regional Park.
Searchers soon poured into the area. At 2:01 a.m., a Maryland-National Capital Park Police officer radioed that he smelled fuel as he walked into the park along a paved path. Ahead of him on the path were two Maryland state troopers. Three minutes later, the search was over: The troopers and park police officer could hear Wells calling for help from the wreckage.
Yesterday, the bodies of the four crash victims were at the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore, where forensic pathologists might be able to determine whether they suffered injuries that would have probably killed them on impact or if any of the four could have survived if help had arrived sooner.
Staff writers Del Quentin Wilber and Jenna Johnson and Metro researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.