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Four killed in Md. medical helicopter crash

By Nafeesa Syeed
The Associated Press

DISTRICT HEIGHTS, Md. — American air safety investigators hope to wrap up work in a couple of days at the scene of a deadly weekend helicopter crash that killed four people in suburban Washington.

The crash, one of a growing number of air ambulance accidents in the country, happened after the pilot twice radioed for help in foggy weather.

The bodies have been removed, but the wreckage remained Sunday night, National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said.

The medical helicopter was carrying victims of a Saturday night traffic accident when it went down around midnight in a suburban Washington park. It was the deadliest medevac helicopter accident in Maryland since the State Police began flying those missions nearly 40 years ago, and the eighth fatal medical helicopter crash in the U.S. in the last 12 months.

About 30 people have died in such crashes during that period, Hersman said.

Medical aircraft crashes have been increasing since the 1990s, in part because it is a booming business, fueled by the closing of emergency rooms in rural areas and an aging population, according to the National EMS Pilots Association.

However, the state-run program in Maryland does not charge and has had just three other fatal helicopter crashes in four decades.

Killed in the crash Sunday were pilot Stephen Bunker, 59; flight paramedic Mickey Lippy, 34; emergency medical technician Tanya Mallard, 39; and 18-year-old Ashley Younger. Younger and Jordan Wells, who survived the crash, were involved in the traffic accident.

The helicopter was on a roughly 25-mile (40-kilometer) trip from the traffic accident to the hospital when the aircraft radioed late Saturday that it would land at Andrews Air Force Base instead because conditions were "not favorable" at the hospital.

As they approached, the pilot radioed that he was having trouble assessing his surroundings. At 11:55 p.m., he again asked for assistance with the landing and that was the last air traffic controllers heard from him, Hersman said.

The helicopter crashed around midnight, three miles from the base, Hersman said.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration were investigating the cause of the crash.

Rescue workers found the heavily damaged chopper lying on its side, pinned under a large tree.

Hersman said this type of aircraft is not required to carry a voice recorder or data recorder, and this helicopter had neither.

She said American Eurocopter, which built the craft, and Turbomeca, which manufactured the engine, are helping with the investigation.

The recent increase in medical helicopter accidents has triggered the safety board to hold a public hearing on the matter, Hersman said, though no date has been set.

A federal investigation in 2006 found there were 55 air ambulance accidents from 2002 to 2005, prompting the safety board to issue four recommendations, including higher standards for medical aircraft and more stringent decision-making in determining whether to fly in bad weather.

Dr. Bryan Bledsoe, an emergency medicine physician who teaches at the University of Nevada and has researched accident rates of medical helicopters, said Sunday that medical flights are overused nationwide.

"We've just gotten into a situation here in the United States where we think that the helicopters are a panacea," Bledsoe said. "And they are an important tool, but they are just a tool. We vastly overuse them, patients don't benefit and they are expensive."

There is a tendency to fly in questionable weather, he said. In many cases, the flights aren't justified because the distance to the nearest hospital is not that great or the injuries are not severe enough, he said.

State Police have grounded all of their flights until the cause of the crash can be determined.

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