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Medical helicopter crashes in California Killing all on board

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helicopterFOUR people on board of a medical helicopter carrying a patient to a hospital had been killed in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley due to heavy rain and fog.

The SkyLife air ambulance had a pilot, a nurse, a paramedic and a patient aboard when it went down in a remote field about halfway through its planned 50-mile trip last week, American Ambulance President Todd Valeri said at a news conference.

The Bell 407 helicopter was heading from Porterville Municipal Airport south to San Joaquin Community Hospital in Bakersfield when it crashed, Kern County fire officials said.

There was dense fog and heavy rain in the area and it was not clear whether that caused the crash, but “weather conditions are always a factor,” AFP quoted Valeri saying.

The weather also made it difficult to find and reach the site, and rescue crews did not get there for more than two hours after the helicopter went missing.

The helicopter went down amid rolling hills of cattle-grazing country east of the town of McFarland, 135 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The wreckage was 2½ miles from the nearest highway.

The helicopter’s cabin was fairly intact but the tail was broken off and laid 30 yards away while debris was scattered over a 50-square-yard area, according to a description by Ken County sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt.

The crew notified flight dispatch that it was leaving Porterville at 6:52 p.m., according to Dan Lynch, EMS Director for Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties.

At 7:05 p.m., dispatch tried to raise the helicopter for a routine check in but got no response, Lynch said. After checking with nearby airport towers, the dispatch center notified authorities that the aircraft was missing and provided its last GPS reading.

A sheriff’s helicopter crew reported finding the debris field on private property around 8:35 p.m. Rescuers reached the crash site around 10 p.m. and confirmed the fatalities.

There was no distress call from the crew, and investigators were gathering data on the weather, the aircraft’s mechanics and the pilot’s history to see if any of them were factors, Joshua Cawthra of the National Transportation Board said at a briefing at the week end.

The power lines in the area did not appear to have an effect, Cawthra said. His team will take the wreckage to Sacramento for a long-term investigation, he said.

“Hopefully at the end we’ll be able to say what happened, why it happened and ultimately prevent this type of accident from happening again,” Cawthra said.

The pilot was Thomas Hampl, 49, the nurse was Marco Lopez, 42, and the paramedic was Kyle Juarez, 37, Valeri said Friday. The patient was a woman, but her name was not yet being released, Valeri said.

Air Ambulance’s Skylife Air Medical service operates three helicopters out of the Fresno and Visalia airports. Valeri said that SkyLife has never had an aircraft crash since it partnered with Rogers Helicopters Inc. in 1991.

The air ambulance transports about 1,000 patients a year, he said.
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