JALAPA -- Three times before dawn Tuesday, calls went out to emergency medical helicopters: A woman with a broken leg needed help along I-26 in Newberry County.
Air rescue units from two Columbia hospitals and another in Greenville said it was too foggy to fly.
A fourth call went to Spartanburg, where Regional One pilot Bob Giard checked the radar, decided the weather looked clear and took off with two crew members.
The crew never reported problems with the weather en route to the site. But minutes after picking up the patient, their helicopter crashed in woods near the Palmetto Trail, about 1,000 yards from an I-26 rest area, authorities said.
Giard, 41, flight paramedic David Bacon, 31, nurse Glenda Frazier Tessnear, 42, and an unidentified female patient died.
Officials must figure out what caused the crash, a process that could take months.
Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster said security officers would remain on the scene all night. National Transportation Safety Board authorities will begin investigative work at 8 a.m. today, he said. The Federal Aviation Administration is also investigating.
Tuesdays tragedy began to unfold at about 4:20 a.m., when the state Highway Patrol went to the scene near the Newberry-Laurens county line after someone reported a woman in the highways grassy median.
She was hysterical, Foster said, referring to the woman.
The two-person Newberry County ambulance crew decided her broken lower leg and bruises required that she be flown to a trauma center, said Andy Hawkins, spokeswoman for Newberry County Memorial Hospital. They based their decision on standard trauma criteria from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, she said.
The woman couldnt be taken to the Newberry hospital because it doesnt have a trauma center, Hawkins said.
Investigators, who by late Tuesday hadnt released the womans name pending notification of relatives, gave few details about why she was in the median.
But Foster said she told the trooper she had been hit by an 18-wheeler. Later, she said she had been hit by a car. No vehicle was found at the scene, he said.
Earlier, eyewitnesses had seen the woman walking between the rest areas on the eastbound and westbound sides of the highway, he said.
SEEKING A HELICOPTER
The Newberry County Emergency Medical Services initially contacted Palmetto Health Richland, Greenville Hospital System and Providence Hospital in Columbia.
Palmetto Healths CareForce took off at 4:40 a.m. Four minutes later, it aborted the flight because of fog, said Tammie Epps, hospital spokeswoman.
The fog was not apparent from the ground, Epps said. The CareForce crew detected it only after lifting off.
Minutes later, Greenville said it could not fly, citing weather concerns and the no-fly decision by CareForce, Hawkins said.
Providence Hospitals Life Reach then decided against accepting the call because it knew of the CareForce decision, said Jeanna Moffett, a Providence spokeswoman.
The fourth call went to Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, which agreed to send a helicopter, she said.
Before lifting off from Spartanburg in a Bell 407 helicopter, Giard checked weather radar.
He accepted the flight and said the weather was clear, said Jimmy Greene, whose responsibilities at Spartanburg Memorial Hospital include overseeing air rescues.
But the Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City, Mo., issued a visibility advisory at 3:45 a.m. about two hours before the crash for much of a four-state region of the Southeast, including the area where the helicopter went down, said the Columbia office of the National Weather Service.
Senior Columbia meteorologist Bernie Palmer said he did not know whether the helicopter rescuers had access to that information, which warned of visibility below three miles because of clouds and fog.
Palmer also said local weather stations showed no signs of fog.
At 4:56 a.m., an FAA weather site in Greenwood showed a reading of four miles of visibility and mist not fog, Palmer said.
At the same time, Columbia Metropolitan Airport showed clear skies with seven miles of visibility; Owens Field downtown had five miles of visibility and mist, the meteorologist said.
But patchy fog could occur just outside of those weather stations, Palmer explained.
At 5:20 a.m., the helicopter crew members reported they were within two minutes of landing at the site, Greene said.
He landed safely and then took off. There was no call made from the helicopter about any bad weather.
IT WAS DISINTEGRATION
Crumbled pieces of the helicopter were tangled with tree limbs at the crash site in the Sumter National Forest.
The wreckage was cloaked in white foam, left from the fire suppressant. It covered a space no longer than 50 feet long and 40 feet to 45 feet wide.
A red, white and blue piece of the helicopter dangled from a tree. Broken treetops a few yards away marked the helicopters downward path.
Although the area was about 1,000 yards from the rest stop and the highway, rescue and recovery crews had to travel a roundabout way to get there because of the rough terrain.
They drove a half-mile in four-wheelers and pickups over a winding, bumpy path.
This was the path trucker Johnny Williamson took when he found the wreckage. Williamson, owner of J&L Trucking in Florence, had just pulled into the rest area to take a nap.
There was no nap, he said.
The 49-year-old Liberty man saw the helicopter, which had landed on the interstate at the eastbound entrance to the rest area.
The trucker walked over to see what was going on and saw the woman being placed in the helicopter. He watched it take off, soar above the trees and recalled the horrible sound that followed.
I just heard it go boom.
Williamson and a trooper knocked down a fence that bordered the forest and headed down the dirt path.
I was running when something told me to go left, he said.
The trooper continued walking straight. Williamson veered off. He knew he was approaching the wreckage from the stench in the air. Part of it was caused by the burning fuel.
Before I got to the wreck, you could smell death. It was just an odor you can smell, he said.
Twenty minutes after he started running, Williamson came upon the grisly scene.
I hollered for help. It was disintegration. Pieces were everywhere, he said.
Williamson stayed at the site until officials arrived. Then he waited in the rest area to talk to FAA officials.
I couldnt go to sleep right now if they gave me a sleeping pill, he said. I could probably drive here to Texas and back.