Helicopter Crash Victim: Todd Hellman

Todd and Sandy Hellman with their eight children.The paramedic had no life insurance with his job, and it was too expensive to buy, a common complaint of pilots and crews.
Todd and Sandy Hellman with their eight children.The paramedic had no life insurance with his job, and it was too expensive to buy, a common complaint of pilots and crews. (Courtesy Of Sandy Hellman)
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Todd and Sandy Hellman met in Elko, Nev., and were married in 1995. The plan was to have children right away, but when the children didn't come, they became foster parents and decided to adopt. They went from one foster child to eight, with the ages spanning a dozen years.

"We just made it work," Sandy said. "We had done foster care for so long, we'd throw another plate on the table and what's one more kid?"

Todd had grown up in Oregon before moving to Nevada. He had attended college on a baseball scholarship and gone on to work at a mine, compete in mine rescue contests and become an emergency medical technician in Elko.

After studying to become a paramedic, Todd began working for a small medical helicopter company, Access Air, flying patients from crash scenes and small hospitals to larger medical centers in Reno, Nev., and Salt Lake City.

He was good at what he did, said Sandy, a counselor: "He had a great bedside manner. He'd put people at ease. We would get phone calls and letters long after the accident."

In August 2004, Todd was part of a three-person crew transporting an 11-day-old infant from a hospital in Battle Mountain, Nev., to a medical center in Reno. According to investigators, the pilot had two options: He could take a shorter route that required crossing rugged mountain terrain at night, or he could choose a longer route following an interstate. The pilot chose the shorter route, but after taking off, the helicopter vanished from radar.

Rescuers located the wreckage the next morning along a 9,775-foot-tall mountain ridge. The crew, infant and baby's mother were dead. Investigators said the physical evidence suggested that the helicopter had flown into the mountainside. Precise weather conditions could not be determined. The helicopter was not equipped with a terrain-warning system, and none was required.

Todd received no life insurance as part of his job, Sandy said. "We did check into buying insurance on our own," but "the costs were so astronomical."

That's a frequently heard complaint among pilots and crews. Many receive coverage, but often it isn't nearly enough. When crews try to buy additional coverage, they discover that companies won't insure them because of the risk or that the premiums cost thousands of dollars. "A company quoted me a price of $3,000 a year for $250,000," paramedic James Riley said. "I can't afford that."

In some cases, families are left to depend on federal payments or charity.

"There is this image you are entitled to a huge payout or you have this huge life insurance payout. And that's definitely not the case," Sandy Hellman said. Her family receives $945 every two weeks in workers' compensation, in addition to the children's Social Security support, she said.

The local fire department took the family under its wing, helping to buy school clothes and checking in once a month. Nurses from a hospital emergency room set up a Christmas tree and got a wish list from the kids. "The whole community rallied around us," Sandy said.

Five years later, Sandy is engaged to be married and happy. The crash "is forever a part of you," she said. "Thankfully, the precious memories eventually overshadowed the all-encompassing pain. We were blessed to have Todd in our lives, and I need to remember that."

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