MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) — A nurse, a paramedic and a pilot died when a medical helicopter crashed and burst into flames in a field in northern Iowa.
The helicopter had been headed to Emmetsburg, about 80 miles west of Mason City, to pick up a patient when it slammed into the ground just north of Ventura about 9 p.m. Wednesday, hospital and other officials said. No patient was on board.
KarrieJo VanderPloeg, of rural Clear Lake, said her family was in the car about three miles from home when they saw a bright flash across the sky.
"It was probably from the initial crash because it was red that just lit up the sky. You knew something had happened. It was kind of like lightning, but it was red so you knew it was an explosion of some kind," she said.
They drove to the site and saw the badly damaged helicopter in a farm field. She said since her children were in the car, they didn't get closer to investigate. Someone was walking around with a flashlight, likely someone who lived nearby.
Officials later said they used snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to reach the wreckage.
Butch Kozisek told the Mason City Globe Gazette that he had been startled by the sound of the helicopter flying so low and that he saw "one heck of an explosion" from his home less than a mile from the snowy crash site.
"Me and the wife were looking out the window and wondering what it was, and then the sound quit for about a second or two, and then just a big ball of fire at ground level," Kozisek said.
Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa in Mason City identified two of the victims as employees: nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau and paramedic Russell Piehl.
Hospital president and CEO Dan Varnum said that while the two "fulfilled significant duties, they played a greater role as our neighbors and friends."