Helicopter Crash Victim: Sandra D. Pearson

Saturday, August 22, 2009

When 38-year-old Sandra Pearson walked into a room, it immediately came alive, friends and family say. "There was always a smile on her face," recalled her mother, Brenda Moore. "She was always talking with her hands. A social butterfly, my daughter was that."

Pearson worked in hospital emergency departments before becoming a flight nurse. She was good at handling emergencies, calm and in control. A single mother of two young children, she baked cookies for colleagues on rainy days to cheer them up.

Around 2002, Pearson accepted a position as a flight nurse on an Air Evac EMS helicopter based in Rushville, a town of 6,000 in southeast Indiana. She loved her job, according to her mother, but last summer decided to move to Indianapolis to work at a specialty heart hospital.

Pearson's last day as a full-time flight nurse was Aug. 31, 2008. That afternoon, she was part of a three-person crew making a public relations appearance at the Burney Volunteer Fire Department's annual hog roast and tractor pull. "They had to drum up business," Moore said. Publicity and marketing flights were part of the job.

Six months earlier, Pearson's crew had taken a helicopter to Loogootee, Ind., for a raffle arranged by the Martin County Chamber of Commerce and captured on a YouTube video.

"We sold tickets" for rides, said chamber Vice President Jim Stoughton. "The whole purpose of the thing was to get some publicity . . . to mainly show off the helicopter and sell Air Evac memberships."

The helicopter took up several people with winning raffle tickets and circled a field before landing near a pool.

John M. Allen of the Federal Aviation Administration said his agency doesn't have special rules to protect the crews of medical helicopters used in marketing events. "This is a safety issue but more of a business decision outside of our powers," Allen said. "Going to a hog roast, to a wedding, to a state fair -- I'm not sure that is germane to the regulations."

In a written reply to The Washington Post, Air Evac said it does not require crews to fly publicity events. The crew that attended the hog roast "made its own decision to attend in order to demonstrate community support."

After appearing at the Burney hog roast, Pearson's helicopter lifted off and started across a field. Witnesses said it appeared to clear a power line. But shortly after, the helicopter came apart in mid-air, losing its main rotor blade and exploding in flames when it crashed in the field.

Grace Manley, a second-grader, told investigators that she saw the helicopter explode "like fireworks, but it didn't have little pieces fall to the ground like a firework does."

Moore said that when she heard the helicopter had crashed, "I kept thinking: I got to get my daughter home. But when I realized there wasn't anything left, that's when I lost it completely."

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