Federal investigators Saturday began putting together pieces of a puzzle they hope eventually will explain why a medical helicopter crashed in northwest Oklahoma City, killing two people and critically injuring another.
Understanding Friday's accident will involve careful analysis of the wreckage and witness statements and could take many months to complete, said Alex Lemishko, senior air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
“There were no radio or distress calls from the pilot that would indicate any sort of problems during the initial phase of the flight,” he told reporters while investigators combed through the wreckage on St. Ann Drive. “Nothing seemed rushed about this particular mission.”
Pilot Mark Montgomery and flight nurse Chris Denning died when the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter — a 2004 model — crashed and exploded before sunup Friday.
The flight paramedic, Billy Wynne, remained in critical condition with severe burns Saturday at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Witnesses were able to pull him from the wreckage and to safety just before the helicopter exploded a second time.
The aircraft was owned and operated by EagleMed, a Wichita, Kan.-based air medical transport service. It had just taken off from Integris Baptist Medical Center and was en route to Watonga to pick up a cardiac patient.
Lemishko said experts with the board as well as the Federal Aviation Administration — with the assistance of technical advisers with the helicopter's manufacturer — are conducting a detailed inspection of the wreckage on the ground.
Yellow police tape barred access to the scene Saturday. Workers and visitors to an adjacent nursing home were detoured to the back of the facility while the investigation work was under way.
Lemishko said investigators would move the wreckage Sunday to a secure facility for a more detailed examination.
He said satellite tracking devices and surveillance footage at the hospital indicated nothing unusual about the helicopter's condition or the crew's flight preparations.
Montgomery had vast experience flying helicopters, including two years with EagleMed, a previous stint with the U.S. Army and recently as a pilot with the Oklahoma National Guard. The helicopter he was flying is a “viable platform” for medical transport nationwide, Lemishko said.
EagleMed President Larry Bugg said he and other company employees were heartbroken by the accident and are cooperating with the investigation.
“Our family has suffered a grievous loss that can't be measured or put into words,” Bugg said. “Consoling the families of these three men and ensuring that their needs are met is our primary focus.”
Lemishko said key to the investigation into the crash is the eyewitness account of David Rogers, a carpet layer who was just getting started with his work day when he saw the helicopter “flash” before descending from the sky.
Rogers said that when he turned a corner onto Britton Road he stopped when he saw three nursing home employees, all women, using a fire extinguisher to put out the flames burning Wynne.
“He wanted me to take his flight suit and I told him I couldn't do it and he said his leg, he felt like it was about to fall off,” Rogers said Saturday. “I grabbed his hand and held his hand and told him to hold on, that they (emergency responders) were on their way.”
Rogers and the three women, each of whom worked Saturday but could not be reached for comment, were hailed as heroes by Lemishko.
The four were able to move Wynne out of a pool of fuel just before the second explosion, he said.
Rogers said the women were certainly heroes for risking their lives, but that his was just a natural response.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Who does that? Who stops their truck on the way to the doughnut shop and goes to a helicopter fire?'” he said. “My response to that is, who wouldn't? Who wouldn't do that? Anyone could have done the same thing.”
Lemishko said investigators will look first at components of the helicopter that could have caused a midair “flash,” but would not specify which components that might be or speculate on any theories.
He said a preliminary report will be issued in five days, but a final report on the deadly crash could take as long as eight months to be released.