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Rescue workers mourn Bayflite crew

The three people who died Tuesday in the crash of a medical helicopter were familiar faces to many in Citrus County.

[1988 photo by Susanne Tobin]
Bayflite nurse Alicia Betita-Collins, left, was one of the helicopter crew members who briefed Citrus emergency workers on establishing landing zones and preparing patients for aerial evacuations. Betita-Collins was killed in Tuesday's helicopter crash in St. Petersburg.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


INVERNESS -- They knew them through brief encounters at automobile accidents and from a December 1998 training session.

But members in the fraternity of emergency response nevertheless mourned the death of three St. Petersburg helicopter rescue workers Tuesday as though they were family members.
Pilot picked flight path
Though Bayflite pilots have a routine for crossing the bay, they are not directed by control- lers for much of the trip.

The last minutes of Bayflite 3

Loss of crew reverberates across the bay

Citrus County Fire Services Director Mike Schlaudraff ordered flags outside fire stations flown at half-staff on Wednesday, "out of respect for the profession."

Around the county, emergency workers tried to find people to fill in for shifts as they made plans to attend memorial services, which is not easy in a line of work where posts cannot go unattended.

"We all knew them, but we didn't know them," Schlaudraff said. "But it's a very close-knit family in emergency services. Our hearts go out to them and their families."

Pilot Mark Wallace, paramedic Erik Hangartner and flight nurse Alicia Betita-Collins were killed Tuesday when their Bayflite helicopter crashed off the edge of Tampa Bay in northeastern St. Petersburg. The helicopter reportedly hit a radio tower and broke apart over a swampy area as it returned to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa after dropping off a patient at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Investigators are trying to figure out the cause of the crash. Closer to St. Petersburg, the two men and woman were remembered as being among the tops in their line of work. In Citrus County, they were remembered as professionals who carried out their jobs efficiently and with care.

At least two of the rescue workers were in Citrus County in November to transport someone injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident off County Road 581. Schlaudraff said, however, that the three generally worked further south and that other Bayflite helicopters typically responded to accidents here.

But the crew also participated in a pair of 1998 training exercises. They helped local rescue workers prepare makeshift locations for their craft to land after accidents, practicing in the Winn-Dixie store parking lot at Meadowcrest in Crystal River. And they instructed paramedics and firefighters in how best to prepare a patient for helicopter transport.

Connell Heights Fire Department Assistant Chief Tom Bosley planned the training sessions with Betita-Collins. He remembered the nurse was extremely flexible in setting up training times, despite scheduling constraints on her end.

Bosley said he only knew the three from the training session and occasionally seeing them at crash sites, where helicopter crews arrive and depart quickly.

[1998 photo by Susanne Tobin]
Mark Wallace, who died in Tuesday's crash, conducts a training session in 1998 in Citrus County.
"But you can relate simply because of the job factor," Bosley said. "It was a sad day for all of Citrus County. It's a terrible thing."

Ron Weber echoed those sentiments. As a paramedic stationed in the Sugarmill Woods area, he recognized the faces of the three people who died. He was at home with his wife, Cathy, also a paramedic, when they heard the news on television.

"My wife said, "Oh, my gosh, I know her,' " Weber said.

Like others in Citrus County, he said he knew the three only by face. Conversations with helicopter workers are usually brief -- a quick report on the status of the patient -- when they sweep in to transport someone who is injured to a hospital outside Citrus County, Weber said.

Nevertheless, he said, the death of three comrades stings everyone in the rescue business.

"It always hits close to home," Weber said. "I know a lot of people who have thought about nothing else today."

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