A decision last week to delay the flight of a medical rescue team to accommodate a television news crew has led to the firing of a health professional, the threat of a lawsuit and a barrage of nasty accusations and countercharges.
Three producers and a news correspondent from ABC-TV's "20-20" show arrived here to research and film a story on emergency infant care in Arizona.
They focused on the Air Evac rescue program, an air ambulance service operated by Samaritan Health Service of Phoenix and a local hospital. Air Evac uses chartered aircraft and a team of physicians to respond to patients in remote areas who need prompt medical attention and possible quick transportation to hospitals. One element of the service deals exclusively with newborn infants.
ABC saw the possibility of some dramatic footage in accompanying doctors flying to treat babies in outback parts of Arizona.
But its crew became the center of controversy June 2, when several Air Evac officials delayed for an hour the departure of an emergency flight from Phoenix to Douglas, a mining town with a population of 12,000 near the Mexican border, so that a larger plane could be outfitted for the television producers and cameramen.
An infant in Douglas suffering from "respiratory distress" was waiting to be flown to a hospital in Tucson. The child's life apparently was not in danger.
When the TV crew failed to show up at the airport in Phoenix, the Air Evac plane took off. The ABC personnel followed later on another aircraft.
The Arizona Republic played the story on its front page, leading to an investigation by Samaritan Health Service and the suspension of Tom Sweeney, director of the Air Evac program.
Samaritan President Stephen Morris said Sweeney was fired because, as director of Air Evac, "the responsibility was on his shoulders."
Sweeney claims he is "a sacrificial lamb." He said lower level officials made the decision to delay the plane's departure, and that he found out about it later. Sweeney has threatened to sue Samaritan unless he is reinstated and receives a public apology.
Alan Raymond, director of news information for ABC, said today that any inference that the network was responsible for the flight delay was false. "Our people called and chartered a flight . . . after the other plane had taken off," Raymond said. "Our intention was to follow the [Air Evac] plane . . . not be on [it]. They did not request any delay. They didn't know of any delay."