Helicopter Crash Victim: Erin Reed

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Erin Reed was a flight nurse, daughter, older sister. She taught her friend Paula Roberts how to drive a stick shift; Roberts taught Erin how to eat sushi. "There was an abiding love and zest for living just being with Erin," Roberts recalled in a memorial to her after she died in a 2005 helicopter crash. "My head tells me she went down doing something she loved . . . but my heart doesn't listen very well."

Erin grew up in Petaluma, Calif. She wanted to be a doctor but became an emergency medical technician and later a flight nurse. For a time, she was the only woman in her fire department and had to prove herself every day. Her flight helmet bore a sticker that read: "Girls Kick Butt!" Passionate and confident, she was a strong advocate for patients.

Eventually, Erin, 48, made her way to Seattle, where she flew for a nonprofit medical helicopter service called Airlift Northwest. On the night of Sept. 29, 2005, she was part of a three-person crew transporting a patient to a hospital. After completing its mission, the helicopter followed the coastline at 800 feet before veering over the ocean and disappearing from radar.

A number of witnesses reported hearing a low-flying helicopter and then an impact. But no one saw Erin's helicopter fall into Puget Sound on that dark night, which was marred by rain and fog. The cause of the crash was a mystery. The pilot was experienced flying in the area, and investigators found no evidence of a mechanical failure. The physical evidence suggested that the pilot and helicopter made an "uncontrolled descent" into the water.

Erin's sister, Stacey Friedman, still finds herself thinking about Erin's last moments. "That's what makes my eyes burn," she said. "I count the time off in my head. . . . It seems like it's an eternity. I just hope she wasn't afraid. I hope she never knew what was happening. But somehow, knowing Erin, that seems unlikely. She always knew what was coming. It's the rest of us who didn't know."

Stacey has become an advocate for improving medical helicopter safety. In April, she testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation, decrying industry leaders who she says balk at safety improvements and new technology. "We are not asking the impossible," she said. "We are asking operators to keep our people safe. If their response is 'We can't afford it,' then they shouldn't be in a business that rests its reputation on saving lives."

Friedman contends that her sister's flight never should have taken place, because of the bad weather: "I absolutely believe they never should have left. I know that it's easy for me to quarterback the decision, that weather in Seattle changes all the time. But I wish they had decided to have a cup of coffee and wait it out, because the weather did change later that night."

She said Airlift Northwest has had five major crashes in the past decade, including two over open water that killed six crew members. "At the time of the accident, they had an aging fleet without night-vision goggles or a terrain-warning system," Friedman said. "And I don't believe they did a formal risk assessment that night."

AirLift Northwest spokeswoman Chris Martin said that after the crash, the company added the technologies when it bought new helicopters and hired a new operator for its program. The company also introduced a more elaborate risk-assessment program.

"It's important to remember we have saved a lot of lives," Martin said. "We have done everything to save patients."

Friedman acknowledged the changes but said: "Some programs are still too comfortable flying in questionable weather conditions. It becomes part of the culture.

"My sister loved her job and was good at it," she added. "But I believe if she really knew the risks, she would have worked at the Taco Bell down the street instead of getting on that helicopter."

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