Friday, September 2, 2011

When a Patient Dies, It's a Different Story

Read the update on this story by clicking here.

There's a frightening sameness to the accidents that continue to plague the helicopter ambulance industry, but the crash that killed 58-year old Terry Tacoronte in in Missouri last Friday is notably different. Tacoronte, of McFall, Missouri was a patient, and though there have been 19 helicopter ambulance accidents in since 2009, this is the first time a patient has been killed since October 2008 when the toddler, Kirstin Reann Blockinger died in a crash in suburban Chicago.

A mother of three and grandmother of eight, Tacoronte was killed on August 26th along with the pilot, flight paramedic and nurse, so you may be wondering why am I am focusing so much attention on her.  The reason is this; When pilots or medical personnel go down in an air ambulance crash, there is  little legal recourse. Workmens' compensation precludes them or their families from suing their employer. Unless they can prove the accident was a due to a defect in the aircraft, there is no way for them to sue for compensation.

Say what you will about lawyers, the fact that the people most likely to be injured or killed in  helicopter ambulance accidents never get their day in court has to be contributing to the industry's dismal safety record.

But here comes Mr. Tacoronte armed with aviation attorney Gary Robb and a civil lawsuit that claims it was the practice of Air Methods to fly with reduced fuel as a weight and money saving tactic. The consequence in this case was to cause the helicopter to run out of fuel and crash, according to the suit.

Did it happen that way? Who can say? It really is too early, but fuel exhaustion is not difficult to detect at a crash scene. Lack of a fire or no fuel smell on the ground are good indicators. 

Tacoronte tells reporters as his wife was boarded onto a helicopter to be transferred the seventy miles from from St. Joseph to Liberty Hospital, he kissed her good bye - fully intending to meet her there after traveling by car.  When he arrived a doctor told him his wife of 8 years was dead.

Yes, his story is tragic. As tragic as the stories from the families of paramedic Chris Frakes, flight nurse Randy Bever and pilot James Freudenberg.  And as tragic as what the families of dozens of pilots and medical workers who died in the accidents prior have experienced. 

Unlike them, this widower is free to press his case and use the cudgel of the judicial system to put pressure on the helicopter EMS operators. 

Perhaps things will change because of this accident. Perhaps it will result in a closer examination of the risks versus the benefits of helicopter transport of patients. Perhaps this one minor difference will make all the difference in the world.


Mike Danko said...

Christine - Another great article on the EMS industry. One small technical point: In a fuel *starvation* accident, there is fuel on board the aircraft, but for some reason it is not getting to the engine (because, for example, the pilot is trying to feed the engine from a tank that is empty rather than the tank that is full). Unlike fuel exhaustion accidents, fuel *starvation* accidents often result in post-impact fires. It's fuel *exhaustion* that is given way by the lack of fire or smell of fuel. This accident appears to have been a fuel *exhaustion* accident.

Christine Negroni said...

You are correct, Mike. Thank you for noticing it and calling it to my attention. Error fixed. God bless attentive readers. Christine

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Scott M said...

Christine, it's important to inform your readers that accidents are preventable through effective data mining, with appropriate data analysis and reporting - i.e. HFDM. Check out the recently published Global HFDM Steering Committee's recently issued guide to HFDM Industry's Best Practices - you can download the document at:

Thanks, Scott

Anonymous said...

Your account of this horrific story made me cry!


Anonymous said...

thanks to you all for sharing such important issue. in India couple of months also there was a similar incident, the DGCA is investigating the matter. All of above this type of flights , irrespective of situations are more important than any other flights,may be VVIP or military . Authority over the world should come together to develop a common platform to make this type of flights more important legally and technically than anything as we , in today's world are more concentrated for saving some ones life together.

Anonymous said...

I would also like to point out that although the flight did originate in St. Joseph, the patient was picked up at the hospital in Bethany, Missouri - then was being transported to a hospital in Liberty. This was a well written article, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Christine... This makes me sick. Literally sick. Sadly, and with respect to all the members of the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) community, especially, those that have lost their lives serving others, the helicopter EMS industry itself is flawed and lives will continue to be lost until appropriate changes are made within it. I say this having 40 years experience as an airline-rated pilot, 20 years experience within the industry, and having served on the FAA rulemaking committee for the HEMS industry.

One only has to compare the qualifications of the people that fly HEMS aircraft with those that fly for the airlines, the flight environment in which the industry operates, and the safety record of the industry itself. Most HEMS pilots only carry a commercial pilot certificate which can be earned with only 250 flight hours. Airline pilots must demonstrate the ability to operate the aircraft to the rigorous standards of the Airline Transport Pilot certificate which can only be earned after 1500 hours of flight experience. Part 121 airline operations require multi-engine aircraft for redundant safety. The AS350 aircraft like the one that crashed, is a single-engine helicopter.

Less than 1% of HEMS rotary wing aircraft operate under IFR or Instrument Flight Rules, but IFR is required for all airline operations, even on a clear day. Flying under an IFR flight plan provides an immeasurable increase in safety as evidenced by the lack of accidents in the airline and corporate aviation environments. And while HEMS industry insiders will tell you its impractical to fly under IFR, only about 1 in 5 helicopter EMS flight operate in a first responder capacity with the remainder providing non-evmergency transport to critically ill patients.

Finally, you have the problem of the "hero" mentality that accompanies the industry. Typically, the dedicated and selfless people that lose their life in a a HEMS helicopter accident are not as much heroes as they are the innocent victims of poor policy and decision making that accompanies this HIGHLY profitable industry. When was the last time you paid more than $10,000 for a 30 minute flight in an aircraft that had only one engine?

A simple fuel computer system would have told the pilot, in real time, how far he could have flown on remaining fuel, how many minutes he had left, and what fuel reserve he had left when he landed. But Air Methods, the owner of Life Net, couldn't spend $3,000 to install a fuel computer in a multi-million dollar AS350 helicopter?

Until HEMS operations are held to the same safety and operating standards as commercial air carriers, or even corporate aviation, we can expect to see many more innocent people losing their lives. Until then, I will continue to pray for the victims... past, present and sadly, future.

Taylor Hurt said...

To correct this story the patient was in bethany missouri and was being transfered to liberty from thete. Not in st. Joseph. My dad was on the helicopter, they had picked patient up from bethany.