A pilot and two flight nurses on a medical transport mission from Grove City to an Ohio River community were killed Tuesday morning when their helicopter crashed in the wooded hills of Vinton County.
The helicopter went down at 6:55 a.m. near Zaleski in an area that could only be reached through logging trails, the State Highway Patrol said. It took more than three hours to find the wreckage, which was located east of Route 278, south of King Hollow Trail in Brown Township, and about 34 miles from their destination.
The patrol identified the victims as pilot Jennifer L. Topper, 34, of Sunbury; and flight nurses Bradley J. Haynes, 48, of London and Rachel L. Cunningham, 33, of the Far West Side.
The Survival Flight Inc. helicopter was on its way from Mount Carmel Grove City hospital to pick up a patient at Holzer Meigs hospital in Pomeroy when authorities lost contact with the aircraft.
"It's a devastating loss. There's no words right now," Andy Arthurs, vice president of EMS services for Survival Flight, told The Dispatch.
He went on to say, "As far as the specifics of the accident, I truly have none for you."
Authorities were eventually able to ping the cellphone of one of the people on board to determine the aircraft's location. The patrol and deputy sheriffs from Vinton, Meigs and Jackson counties helped find the helicopter, which had broken into pieces when it crashed.
"Any loss of life is tragic, and this is heartbreaking," Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Robert Sellers said. This was "first responders flying in adverse conditions to help somebody else."
At the time of the crash, light snow showers were falling in Vinton County with winds blowing steadily from the west at 15 mph and gusting up to 21 mph, said Maura Casey, meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Charleston, W. Va. It was 25 degrees with wind chills hovering in the single digits.
Sellers said it was too soon to determine if weather was a factor in the crash.
"Our prayers are with the families of the crew members and Survival Flight team as we grieve this devastating loss," Michael Wilkins, president and chief operating officer of Mount Carmel East, said in a statement.
The helicopter was a Bell 407 air ambulance helicopter, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Peter C. Knudson, a NTSB spokesman, said an investigator based in Chicago will arrive on scene Wednesday morning and spend the next few days documenting the wreckage site and aircraft, securing the radar track and communications with air traffic control. A preliminary report will be issued within two weeks.
Knudson said NTSB investigators will look at how Topper was operating the helicopter, how the helicopter was functioning and the environment it was flying in before determining a probable cause. That process will take 12 to 24 months, he said.
Authorities were working to clear a path to the helicopter to remove the wreckage. "The landscape around here is really rugged," Sellers said.
The aircraft was one of two helicopters brought to the Mount Carmel Health System through a partnership with Survival Flight last summer. Under the partnership, Mount Carmel houses the helicopters in Grove City and Columbus. Survival Flight owns and operates them throughout the community. The three crew members worked for Survival Flight since June 2018.
Federal NTSB records show there were four air ambulance helicopter crashes last year nationwide resulting in three deaths. In 2017, there were six crashes and seven deaths.
Time seemed to stand still Tuesday afternoon around the Jefferson Township Fire Department in Madison County, where many knew Brad Haynes well as a firefighter/paramedic. Fire Chief Paul "Buck" Van Horn said he knew all three because the first-responders' medical community in central Ohio is small and tight-knit. Each was special and each of the three is a loss, he said.
It was only a couple of days ago that Van Horn last chatted with Haynes, and it was a heart-to-heart kind of talk.
Now, Van Horn will treasure those last moments.
"Brad was just a great, great guy," Van Horn said. "Part of our conversation was about him coming to the realization—like we do as we get older—of just how important family is."
Haynes was a firefighter/paramedic who worked three full-time jobs—at Jefferson Township, with the medical flight unit, and also at Hamilton Township Fire Department in Franklin County.
"The guys that were on duty here (in Jefferson Township), we just looked at each other over and over like 'Is this real?'" Van Horn said Tuesday night. "... It's been a tough, tough day."
The outpouring of support for the 45-member department Tuesday was overwhelming, the chief said. Firefighters came in on their day off, other departments pitched in to help with runs, and people from the community stopped by with food, hugs and kind words.
"We lost a good one," Van Horn said, "and this community will miss him very much."
The loss was still too fresh for Heath Beecher to talk about his girlfriend, Jennifer Topper, friends told The Dispatch.
Ronald Cunningham answered the door at the Far West Side house Tuesday night and said he also wasn't ready to talk yet about his wife, Rachel. He is a firefighter with the Central Ohio Joint Fire District in Centerburg.
"Just keep us in your prayers," Cunningham said. "There are three families. Keep them all in your prayers."