Breathing Life Into the Numbers Behind the Crashes

LifeFlight, a hospital-based medevac program, is a nonprofit that serves the entire state of Maine with two helicopters based in Bangor and Lewiston. LifeFlight has voluntarily met many of the NTSB and FAA safety recommendations, and has an excellent safety record to date.
By Gilbert M. Gaul and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Government regulators, industry groups and academic researchers have written millions of words about medical helicopter crashes. They have dissected accidents, analyzed data and produced thick, glossy reports and PowerPoint presentations.

In all of these studies, one element is usually missing: the names of the dead. In report after report, the crews are barely mentioned.

In February, the National Transportation Safety Board, the government's principal investigator of air accidents, held a four-day hearing on medical helicopter safety, full of speakers from helicopter companies and trade groups. Not a single family member of a victim was called to testify. The agency's vice chairman, Robert L. Sumwalt, said the rules didn't allow it.

"They aren't considered technical experts," he said.

"It's so easy to get lost in the numbers," said Stacey Friedman, whose sister, flight nurse Erin Reed, was killed in 2005 when her helicopter plummeted into Puget Sound. "You forget that each of these victims was a person with a story."

In 2006, Friedman wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration about her sister's crash. A top manager at the agency wrote back, asking Stacey to "Please accept our heartfelt sympathy on the loss of your daughter, Erin."

"It just makes you want to cry," Friedman said. "They can't even get the simple things right."

During the NTSB hearing, victims' families rented a room at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel and held a memorial service featuring video clips and personal stories. One after another, relatives spoke of the men and women lost, and the emptiness left behind. When they were finished, the room fell silent as images of the dead flashed across a screen.

To put a human face on the crash statistics, Post reporters reviewed thousands of pages of accident reports and lawsuits, crisscrossed the country and conducted scores of interviews with families of victims.

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