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Their credo, self-sacrifice,
was also their shared fate

The three victims were widely respected as dedicated and skilled professionals who loved their work.

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 WES ALLISON and AMY HERDY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


    Erik Hangartner, by all accounts, was a crack paramedic, respected by his colleagues for his skill, hard work and spaghetti.

    Pilot Mark Wallace was as precise as any surgeon, having flown combat helicopters for the military and medevac missions for local hospitals for more than a dozen years.

    And Alicia Betita-Collins, a flight nurse, had evacuated wounded soldiers during Desert Storm, attaining the rank of major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. People would ask her how she could spend so much time in helicopters, considering her husband died in a chopper crash a dozen years ago. But when the work got hot and her cool hand prevailed, they were glad she did.

    The three people killed in Tuesday's crash of the Bayflite 3 helicopter were considered the top of their field by their colleagues, the best of an elite corps of air rescue personnel whose speed and skill often mean the difference between life and death.

    "These individuals personified what we believe: public service through self-sacrifice," said a shaken Ken Grimes, the Bayflite program coordinator. "Both the medical crew and the pilot went above and beyond the call of duty."

    Air crews are the SWAT teams of paramedics. They must be mentally and physically tough. They regularly handle the most gruesome injuries. They must be technically expert. Emergency room doctors count on them to keep alive patients who otherwise would die en route to the hospital.

    Flight crews also are notoriously gung-ho. Grimes said Betita-Collins and Hangartner frequently took extra shifts or hours to fill holes, just as they were doing the day they died: Hangartner took vacation Tuesday from his full-time job with the Indian Rocks Fire District to work on Bayflite 3. Betita-Collins was flying so a co-worker could make a doctor's appointment and an art class.

    "She jeopardized her life today to save someone else," said Colin Maloney, the fiance of her daughter, Felicia. "That's what she devoted her life to."

    "Always looking out for everybody'

    photo
    Alicia Betita-Collins, flight nurse
    Betita-Collins was known for her black ponytail and a bubbly persona that belied her 51 years. And at 4 feet, 11 inches tall, she commanded enormous respect from her peers and had long been a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital. She joined the helicopter corps when it was founded in 1987.

    "She was like the mom" of the group, said Sue Vanwormer, a St. Joseph's Hospital emergency room nurse. "She was always looking out for everybody. She had the biggest heart."

    Betita-Collins was known as "Gabby" for her enthusiastic chatter. She had a sense of humor, and would joke that she always made sure her undergarments matched in case of a crash. She loved Tweety Bird and her patch of land in eastern Hillsborough County, where she tended to a handful of cows. She threw pool parties and invited helicopter pilots to land on her expansive grounds.

    And in a tense situation, Betita-Collins' calm demeanor helped her gain control.

    "Under fire, she was cool, reserved," said Michael Brown, a St. Joseph's flight paramedic who had worked with her since 1991. "She knew what to do."

    A major in the Air Force Reserves, she served as a flight nurse in Operation Desert Storm, helping to rescue wounded soldiers. And she loved her job despite the death a dozen years ago of her husband, a helicopter pilot for the Air Force.

    "She missed him, and she said she felt very close to him when she flew," said Nerina Stepanovsky, a fellow Air Force reservist and friend of eight years. "She was one of the best flight nurses I've ever met."

    Added Maloney, her daughter's fiance: "One thing, she always thought she'd die in the helicopter."

    'He was probably one of the elite'

    photo
    Erik Hangartner, paramedic
    Hangartner, 29, and his wife, Tara, 30, met as teenagers and were to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary on May 5. They have four children: Dalton, 8; Austin, 5; Samantha, 3; and Cheyenne, 1. Two months ago they moved from St. Petersburg to Sarasota to be near family.

    "He was a wonderful man," Tara Hangartner said. "He loved the Lord, and he loved his kids. He wanted to spend every minute he could with his kids."

    He had worked for Bayflite for only a year, but had spent the past two years as a paramedic and firefighter for the Indian Rocks Fire District.

    "He was probably one of the elite, if not the best paramedic we had on the department," said Bob Walley, the Indian Rocks EMS coordinator.

    Aside from his professional skills, Hangartner was known as a fabulous cook, often whipping up big pots of spaghetti and chili for his co-workers, with whom he worked 24-hour shifts.

    Before joining Indian Rocks, he was a field training officer with Sunstar ambulance, Walley said. More recently he served as an instructor in the Pinellas County Continuing Medical Education Program, teaching his fellow paramedics in areas such as pediatrics and trauma.

    Hangartner was neat and fastidious, and was known as the dedicated custodian of the helicopter, said Brown, the flight paramedic. Brown said Hangartner was also known for being an expert on the difficult task of opening a patient's airway.

    "People would clear a path to the patient's head when he showed up," he said.

    Hangartner worked long hours, holding the full-time job in Indian Rocks and putting in 40 to 60 hours a week with Bayflite, his wife said. She said she heard about the accident on the radio as she drove her children to a Sarasota park.

    "He just loved his job that much," Tara Hangartner said. "It was what he wanted to do. I always supported him."

    'Very cautious, very safety conscious'

    photo
    Mark Wallace, pilot
    Pilots like Wallace learn to fly low and fast and must become expert at creating impromptu, imperfect landing zones in highway medians and crowded neighborhoods. He had years of experience flying difficult missions, including 15 years piloting Apache helicopters for the National Guard and 13 years as a medical transport pilot in the Tampa Bay area.

    Among the tight community of helicopter pilots in the bay area, Wallace was considered one of the best.

    "He was very cautious, very safety conscious," said pilot Judd Chapin, who had known Wallace for 10 years and flew with him for WFLA-Ch. 8 several years ago. "He was always cheery, always up."

    Wallace, 39, of Tampa, also was devoted to his wife, Ellen, and his three teenagers from an earlier marriage, Mark Jr., Cameron and Lauren. He coached his daughter's basketball team and took his sons rock climbing. Proud of his Scottish heritage, he told friends he could trace his family roots back to Sir William Wallace, leader of the Scottish resistance forces at the end of the 13th century.

    Brown, the flight paramedic, called him "a precision flier."

    "It was awesome watching him fly," Brown said. "In the world of speculation, a lot of people are going to say that he was flying too fast, or too low, or whatever. I'm not going to believe it."

    Times staff writers Deborah O'Neil, Kathryn Wexler, Mike Brassfield and Angela Moore contributed to this report.

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