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Loss of crew reverberates across the bay

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


TAMPA -- Emergency room workers in hospitals from Sarasota to Sebring were in mourning Wednesday over the deaths of three Bayflite workers.

Some have visited the site of the helicopter crash near Weedon Island where Bayflite pilot Mark Wallace, flight nurse Alicia Betita-Collins and paramedic Erik Hangartner were killed Wednesday.

Some came in from vacation to share their shock and grief, while others carried on because someone had to.

Whether on duty or just seeking comfort from colleagues, nurses and doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital emergency room in Tampa showed red-rimmed eyes and bleary faces.

"I don't know that I have truly comprehended what happened yesterday," said Nancy Hunter, 36, a Bayflite nurse based in Sarasota. She had come to St. Joseph's to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony across from the helicopter pad.

Bayflite's two other helicopters were grounded for much of Wednesday in respect to those killed. They were to be back in service by Wednesday night.

Tampa General Hospital's air ambulance service, Aeromed, covered Bayflite's territory, which ranges along the coast from Sarasota north to Hernando County.

Diane Fojt, executive director of a group called the Critical Incident Stress Management Team, had to blink back tears while discussing how she organized volunteers to debrief hospital workers. Fojt had worked with Betita-Collins.

Within minutes of the crash, Fojt had deployed chaplains and mental health counselors. Many came from Miami, West Palm Beach and Melbourne, since some of the people she normally would use needed help themselves.

They went to Bayfront Medical Center, Tampa General Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital, watching workers for signs of stress and arranging debriefing sessions where they could drop their professional detachment long enough to grieve.

"You're expected to perform as a professional, but there comes a time when we have to get behind closed doors and cry," said Fojt.

Nancy Bickel, 42, St. Joseph's director of emergency services, said the crash wouldn't slow the commitment of nurses who want to fly for Bayflite. The jobs require enormous training and carry the risk of a fatal crash, but there is a waiting list of nurses hoping to get on a flight crew, she said.

Wednesday afternoon, Hunter, Bickel and Charles Sand, an emergency room doctor at St. Joseph's, set a wreath outside the emergency room doors in memory of their friends. While they posed for pictures, an Aeromed helicopter landed.

As two members of the flight crew wheeled their patient past the wreath, Hunter's grip on her composure collapsed.

Sand hugged her while she sobbed.

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