Dec. 11--An air ambulance out of Visalia crashed in an isolated area of Kern County Thursday night, killing the crew of three and the critically ill patient they were transporting, officials said.
The SkyLife Air Ambulance helicopter was flying a patient from Porterville to San Joaquin Community Hospital in Bakersfield when it crashed near Highway 65 and Sherwood Avenue east of McFarland, said Dan Lynch, EMS director for Fresno County. Lynch oversees emergency medical services in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties.
The cause of the crash is under investigation.
The names of the crew and the patient were not released Thursday night.
Employees of American Ambulance, which operates SkyLife in partnership with Rogers Helicopters, had been at the company's Christmas party when word of the air disaster spread. They gathered glumly in clusters outside the company's Herndon Avenue office as Lynch and Todd Valeri, president and CEO of American Ambulance, briefed reporters inside.
Valeri said the company was still trying to notify relatives of some of the crew late Thursday night.
"They were wonderful people. It's just so tragic and devastating," Valeri said.
SkyLife Air Ambulance operates three air ambulance helicopters out of the Fresno and Visalia airports. Valeri said SkyLife has never had a helicopter go down since the partnership with Rogers was formed in 1991. The air ambulance transports about 1,000 patients a year, he said.
Lynch said the Bell helicopter was staffed by a "seasoned crew" of a pilot, a flight nurse and a flight paramedic. "They had been a team for quite some time," he said.
Lynch gave this account of what happened:
The crew responded to Porterville to pick up a patient from Sierra View Medical Center for transport to San Joaquin Community Hospital. At 6:52 p.m., the crew notified flight dispatch that it was leaving Porterville.
About 7:05 p.m., dispatch tried to raise the helicopter for a routine check in, but got no response. After checking with airport towers in Fresno and Bakersfield, the dispatch center notified Kern County authorities that the aircraft was missing and provided its last GPS reading east of McFarland.
A Kern County sheriff's helicopter reported about 8:35 p.m. that it had found a debris field. Kern County deputies and fire crews, slowed by fog and darkness, reached the scene about 10 p.m. and confirmed that the patient and the crew of three had perished.
Lynch said the discovery was likely as painful for Kern County fire and sheriff's personnel as it was for American Ambulance staff, since they would have met the air crew at to crashes and other medical emergencies requiring air transport.
"They were very well liked, these individuals," Lynch said.
Valeri said weather conditions are always a factor in such flights, but the crew would have checked the weather before lifting off.