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Copter crash kills 3

photo
[Photo: Larry McGevna, St. Petersburg Fire Dept.]
St. Petersburg firefighters and other rescue personnel work at the wreckage of a Bayflite helicopter that crashed Tuesday in mangroves on Weedon Island at the edge of Tampa Bay in northeast St. Petersburg. All three aboard -- the pilot, a nurse and a paramedic were killed.

Bayflite medical crew
slams into radio tower.

BAYFLIGHT CRASH
body being hoisted by rescue helicopter
[Times photo: Boysell Hosey]
  • Main story
  • Their credo, self-sacrifice, was also their shared fate
  • Like all flying, rescuing injured by air has risks
  • Helicopter type has history of problems, fatal crashes
  • Medical helicopter crashes since 1990
  • Donations for victims' families
    Photos from the crash scene
  • By ADAM C. SMITH and LEANORA MINAI

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Amid the muck and dense mangroves near Weedon Island, St. Petersburg paramedic David Nasworthy recognized the Bayflite helicopter pilot who lay dead in the wreckage. The two had shot the breeze last week on another emergency run.

    This time Nasworthy's job was to recover a fellow rescuer, and he knew what he had to do next: Tell the pilot's brother, a paramedic waiting at a command post, that his brother was dead, along with a flight nurse and paramedic.

    Nasworthy trudged back through the muck to a throng of emergency workers, then pulled aside Richard Wallace.

    "I've done this hundreds of times," Nasworthy told Wallace. "I don't know what to tell you. We love you, and we'll take care of your brother."

    photo
    Click for enlargement
    The Bayflite medical helicopter crew had zipped countless times through the skies around Tampa Bay, rescuing injury victims. But Tuesday, returning to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa after dropping a trauma patient at Bayfront Medical Center, their helicopter slammed into a radio tower and broke apart over the swampy woods around Weedon Island.

    Killed in the crash were pilot Mark Wallace, 39, of Tampa, who had three children; flight nurse Alicia Betita-Collins, 51, of Tampa, the mother of two and whose husband died in a helicopter crash years earlier; and Erik Hangartner, a 29-year-old paramedic from Sarasota with four children. No patients were aboard.

    "These were dedicated, caring professionals who lost their lives providing urgent, emergency health care to this community," said a distraught Sue Brody, president and CEO of Bayfront-St. Anthony's Health Care. "All of our crew members are very acutely aware of the risk and the danger of the job they do,"

    The accident occurred about 12:15 p.m. on a clear, sunny day. It was the first of its kind since Bayfront Medical Center began using helicopters to transport trauma patients in 1986.

    By Tuesday evening, authorities could find little indication of what might have caused the crash, which is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Authority and the National Transportation Safety Board.

    Tower guy wires are a hazard for helicopters flying low in urban areas, but Bayflite crews are aware of the towers in that area. Witnesses said they saw no obvious signs of trouble with the aircraft, which they said hit the tower head-on or almost head-on.

    "He was just flying along level. It looked like he was almost on a straight course for the tower. He didn't deviate or anything," said Dennis Smith, a welding equipment repairman and aviation buff. He was driving south on San Martin Boulevard when he saw the Bayflite helicopter, flying 400 to 500 feet off the ground.

    "It looked like first the rotor blades hit the guy wire and just disintegrated. . . . Then it spun the helicopter into the tower. The guy wire snapped, and the top third of the tower collapsed. The helicopter was spinning with no rotors and no tail boom, and pieces of debris flying everywhere."

    photo
    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    The crash site borders airspace controlled by MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa International Airport, Albert Whitted Airport and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

    Smith jumped a fence and ran into the dense mangroves, but quickly realized he would never find them aircraft.

    "I was freaking out, thinking, "I've got to help those people,"' he said. "I'm pretty shook up. This is something I've got to live with all my life."

    Michael Doubrley was pouring concrete for a new home when he saw the helicopter close enough to recognize it as a Bayflite.

    "He came flying across my job site, and just hit that tower straight on. It was like he wasn't paying attention," Doubrley said.

    The crash site is in a section of unrestricted airspace where pilots do not need to contact air traffic controllers if they fly below 1,200 feet, air traffic controllers said. It is a triangle-shaped area that borders the airspace controlled by MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa International Airport, Albert Whitted Airport and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

    Bayflite 3, as the helicopter was designated, had just departed the space controlled by Albert Whitted. Pilots flying toward the Tampa airport, as the Bayflite pilots were, would normally contact the Tampa tower when they were a few miles north of Gandy Boulevard. Officials said the Bayflite crew made no distress calls before the crash.

    Helicopter pilots in Pinellas and Hillsborough typically fly at 500 to 800 feet, which allows them to remain below other aircraft. But some residents said they were taken aback by how low the aircraft sounded as it passed over their homes.

    "I thought it was going to take the roof off," said Laverne Gallagher, who heard the collision, ran outside and saw metal dropping from the sky.

    Authorities said the radio tower was 649 feet tall. It is a pilot's responsibility to avoid such hazards.

    Co-workers described Wallace as an excellent and experienced pilot.

    Russ Spray, CEO of Rocky Mountain Helicopters, which employed Wallace and leased the aircraft to Bayflite, said Wallace had flown Apache helicopters for the National Guard for 15 years. He was a graduate of the Army's aviation safety management course, had flown for an area TV station, and had flown medical helicopters in Tampa Bay for 13 years.

    "He was one of the best employees, best pilots I've ever known," said Andy Spada, president of Orange State Helicopters, which employed Wallace as a backup pilot for about four years.

    Spada said towers, especially their invisible guy wires, are the biggest obstacles faced by helicopter pilots. He said colored balls should be required on the wires to make them more visible.

    Michael Brown, a flight paramedic with St. Joseph's Hospital, where Bayflite 3 was based, said he thinks a catastrophic mechanical failure must have occurred.

    "I have a hard time believing this was a controlled flight into an obstacle. Mark Wallace was one of the finest pilots I've ever known," Brown said.

    A routine mechanical check of the helicopter Tuesday morning showed no problems, said Brody of Bayfront-St. Anthony's.

    The crash knocked at least one radio station, WRMD 680, off the air, and left a number of other stations unable to send remote news broadcasts from the site.

    Faced with a tangle of mangroves, it took rescue crews some 20 minutes to find the wreckage of the helicopter. It was discovered in a clearing off the Weedon Cove development.

    Paramedics and firefighters rode pickup trucks for a quarter of a mile into the brush, then trudged through more woods and two waist-deep creeks -- the length of two football fields -- to the grim scene. The helicopter was embedded in muck on its left side, its top and tail section missing. The aircraft never caught fire.

    "It looked like a ripped-open tin can," said St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue Lt. Chris Bengivengo.

    Nasworthy, the St. Petersburg paramedic, hiked through deep brush and waded through the water with the 50-pound Jaws of Life -- equipment used to pry open metal.

    He didn't need it.

    Standing in jet fuel, Nasworthy found the pilot lying on his chest; the flight nurse was buckled in her seat. The paramedic was buried under debris. All were dead.

    A 17-year veteran of the department, he recognized the Bayflite crew from working other emergency calls.

    "You want to remember them alive," he said. "I see the bodies, and I know I have to be professional, but when I'm done, it clicks. You start thinking personal."

    Amid the rubble was life-saving equipment from the helicopter.

    "I've seen thousands of people dead," Nasworthy said. "This rivaled them all only because it's one of us. One of our guys."

    Thomas Stubblefield, a part-time paramedic assigned to the helicopter that went down, considers himself lucky. He was off Tuesday.

    He was with his two boys, 8 and 11, when his telephone started ringing and his beeper went off. He heard the news, then hugged and kissed his sons.

    "You never know when the last time is you're going to see them," said Stubblefield, 31.

    A gold pendant of a helicopter dangling from a chain around his neck, he headed to the crash site. He knew the crew members.

    "They're all great people," he said choking back tears before reporters.

    As the paramedic on Bayflite 3, he usually sits next to the pilot to keep a lookout for obstructions such as towers, he said.

    He will keep flying as a paramedic.

    "You can't just turn it all off," he said. "We do this for a reason. A bigger reason than ourselves."

    Staff Writers Bill Adair, Wes Allison, Alicia Caldwell and Amy Herdy and researchers, Caryn Baird, Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.

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