The Maryland State Police grounded its fleet of medical evacuation helicopters yesterday as investigators tried to determine the cause of a late-night crash in Prince George's County that killed four people, the deadliest accident since the force started flying medevac missions 38 years ago.
The aircraft's pilot, who died along with a crew member, a civilian medic and a patient, asked to change his landing site in radio communications shortly before the crash, and witnesses described the area as "very foggy," investigators said. But authorities ordered the state's remaining 11 helicopters - all identical to the one that crashed - to remain on the ground until mechanical failure is ruled out.
The crash happened at a time when Maryland's medevac system is under intense scrutiny by state lawmakers, who are considering a $120 million request to replace the fleet after a legislative audit last month that found a third of the aircraft were out of service for 51 days during the last fiscal year. While noting an "impeccable safety record," the audit also found that police were lax in complying with repair orders, tracking maintenance and costs, and keeping up-to-date repair manuals. The audit also found that nearly half the patients flown by helicopter are discharged within 24 hours, causing some to wonder whether the medevac system is overused.
One of the five people in the crash survived. Jordan A. Wells, 18, was in critical but stable condition yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
About 40 local and federal officials combed through the fuel-soaked crash site in a wooded park a few miles from Andrews Air Force Base yesterday, using chain saws to remove a large tree that had fallen atop the aircraft, said Deborah A.P. Hersman, a National Transportation Safety Board member who visited the site. The "heavily damaged" helicopter came to rest on its side on a footpath, she said, surrounded by scattered paper and medical equipment.
"Certainly these were challenging conditions for the pilot," Hersman said, adding that a weather report issued minutes before the crash noted mist, four miles of visibility and a 500-foot cloud ceiling. But the safety board also plans to explore environmental conditions and the mechanical condition of the aircraft, she said.
State lawmakers said yesterday that they will wait for reports from the NTSB, which is investigating the accident, to determine whether the crash is indicative of any greater problems with the system.
"At this point, we don't know all the facts, we don't know the causal factors, and unless you're sitting in that aircraft next to the guy it's hard to know what he was going through," said Sen. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat and retired helicopter pilot who flew medevac missions in the area for 20 years.
"But having said that," Astle said, "I still have concerns about their maintenance program."
The helicopter's pilot, Stephen Bunker, 59, of Waldorf, was a certified flight instructor and a 24-year veteran of the state police aviation unit, police said. He was also licensed to teach other pilots how to fly using only an aircraft's instruments in times of limited visibility.
Also killed were Tfc. Mickey Lippy, a 34-year-old flight paramedic from Westminster, and Tonya Mallard, a 38-year-old emergency medical technician from the Waldorf rescue squad. Lippy is a member of the helicopter's regular crew, and state officials said Mallard, part of an ambulance team that responded to a Waldorf car accident that led to the medevac call, was asked to join the flight to assist Lippy.
"When there is a second patient, or when there is a critically injured patient that requires a second set of hands, state police will frequently take a field provider" aboard the helicopter, said Dr. Robert R. Bass, head of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.
The fourth victim, Ashley J. Younger, 17, of Waldorf, was in a car with Wells that crashed on Smallwood Drive in Waldorf about 10:45 p.m. Saturday, according to the Charles County sheriff's office. The medevac helicopter left Andrews Air Force Base, where it was stationed, about 11 p.m., state police said, and soon landed nearby.
Citing information that the Federal Aviation Administration provided from air traffic control tapes, Hersman said the helicopter appeared on air traffic control radar at 11:37 p.m., having left with Mallard and the two patients headed for Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly. About 10 minutes later, Bunker radioed controllers and asked to land at Andrews instead.
At 11:55 p.m., the aircraft was about seven miles away. When the pilot was four miles away, he called the tower and "said he was having trouble capturing the glideslope," Hersman said, referring to the vertical guide used to clear obstacles as aircraft come into the airport. He then asked for help with an "airport surveillance radar approach," or turn-by-turn assistance from the air traffic controller, Hersman said.
The aircraft was traveling at about 60 knots, at an altitude of 700 feet, when it dropped off the radar at 11:57 p.m., she said. The accident site was about three miles from the runway.
"There is no recording of a distress call," Hersman said.
There was no voice recorder or flight data recorder on the helicopter, nor are they required, she said.
Police and fire crews sent out search teams at 12:30 a.m. and located the crash site at 2 a.m., police said. Wells was taken by ambulance to the Prince George's County hospital and transferred to Baltimore yesterday afternoon.
With their helicopter network grounded, state police officials asked commercial companies and nearby state and federal helicopter crews for assistance. As of last evening, two flights had taken place in Maryland - a patient transported from Charles County in a U.S. Park Police helicopter and a patient flown from Frederick County by the private MedStar Transport of Columbia, Bass said
With the deaths of Bunker and Lippy, eight state police pilots or crew members have died in helicopter crashes since the service took responsibility for aero-medical evacuation in 1970. Before yesterday, the most recent fatal crash was in 1986, when a helicopter leaving Shock Trauma crashed in Leakin Park, killing two crew members. The state police and the NTSB blamed dense fog. A fatal crash in Queen Anne's County in 1972 was also blamed on heavy fog, and a deadly crash in Beltsville in 1973 was attributed to mechanical failure.
Hersman said the accident was the eighth such incident nationwide in the past 12 months. A 2006 report from the NTSB found that medical evacuation flights are "inherently dangerous" because of their urgency and varying weather and terrain, and it detailed 55 medevac accidents between 2001 and 2006, leading to 18 serious injuries and 54 deaths.
A black flag hung limp yesterday outside the front door of the Gamber Community Volunteer Fire Department, where Lippy also worked as a paramedic and where several members mourned his death as they awaited their next call. Lippy, whose wife, Christina, gave birth to a daughter this year, began as a paid engine driver at Gamber in April 2004, before training as a paramedic.
"Everybody's feeling very badly about it," said Clay Myers, Gamber's public information officer. "Everybody liked him a lot."
At the crash scene yesterday some of Mallard's relatives gathered to seek information and to remember her.
"She loved helping people," said Cheri Douglas, Mallard's aunt. "Tonya had a beautiful personality, a beautiful heart. I lost someone I truly, truly love."
Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown issued a statement yesterday asking for prayers for the victims: "Their sacrifice is a tragic and sobering reminder that even when most of us are asleep, our first responders are still protecting us, regardless of conditions, risking their lives to help others."
The downed helicopter, a Eurocopter Dauphin II with twin jet engines, was purchased by the state in May 1989 and had logged 8,550 flight hours as of October 2007, according to the legislative audit report, making it the third-most-used aircraft in the fleet.
The state's medevac helicopters, based in locations scattered throughout Maryland, typically fly about 5,000 missions a year, said Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of state police. Until yesterday, the fleet had logged about 90,000 flight hours over the past 20 years without a fatality or other major accident.
Baltimore Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Ellie Baublitz contributed to this article.