Responders part of a family

Colleagues struggle with emotions while recalling victims

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Colleagues fought back tears Wednesday afternoon as they recalled the crew involved in Tuesday night's air ambulance tragedy in Wyoming.

Killed in the crash were pilot Tim Benway, 35; flight nurse Dave Linner, 36; and flight nurse Jennifer Wells, 30. Emergency medical technician Tim Baldwin, 35, suffered serious injuries but is expected to recover.

Colleagues said members of an air ambulance crew share a camaraderie that's difficult to explain to others.

"We all feel a strong kindred spirit," flight nurse Dean Zimmerman said. "We're all in this together."

Bob Maddox, chief pilot and co-owner of Mountain Flight Service, which contracts with YVMC to provide the aircraft and pilot for the air ambulance service, said Benway, 35, who formerly flew larger transport aircraft, had developed a passion for flying air ambulance missions.

"Timmy had a fire in his belly for air ambulance," Maddox said. "Once a pilot gets that, they're hooked forever with doing it."

Benway had several thousand hours at the yoke of King Air-type aircraft, Maddox said, and that made Tuesday's "horrific" crash all the more difficult to accept.

"It makes it all the more shocking to us at Mountain Flight Service that it could happen to him," Maddox said.

Paula Golden, director of emergency services for YVMC, said a position as a flight nurse or EMT often is coveted by medical professionals who want to take patient care to another level.

"You are working autonomously," Golden said. "It's a great challenge to rise to that. The sacrifices these people made, they did it doing what they loved."

Wells moved to Steamboat from Greeley last summer to join the emergency department as a nurse. But Golden said it was her goal all along to join the flight crew. She just learned a week ago that she would get that chance. She was on a training and orientation mission when the King Air went down.

"Her dream was to be a part of the flight team," Golden said.

Linner, who served as program director for the air ambulance service, had affected the hospital in a way that went beyond his role with the crew. Hospital spokeswoman Christine McKelvie said Linner had developed a passion for training others on the hospital's new, computerized patient simulator and was eager to train personnel at other hospitals. When the hospital's fund-raising arm inaugurated a "Penguin Plunge" event a year ago, he raised more pledges than anyone else for promising to jump into an icy swimming pool in March.

"I just cannot think of a finer person than Dave," McKelvie said. "His energy -- it went so far beyond the flights. He thought big."

Linner's wife, Laurel, is an operating room nurse at the hospital. The couple has a 10 1/2-month-old daughter named Abigail.

Baldwin's mother, Kate Alexander, said her son has the ability to balance his medical expertise with a human touch.

"Tim loves his job, and he has a passion for what he does. Everyone who has worked with him knows how good he is. He has the ability to step out of his body in a crisis situation and take care of others, not only in a technical, medical sense, but with compassion. This applies to anything he does."

Flight EMT Jamie Neault said it was hard for him to describe the ordeal of waiting for news of his colleagues in the early morning hours Wednesday.

"It was one of the longest nights of my life," Neault said. "Tim (Baldwin) is stable. We thank God he's alive."

Baldwin is a reserve member of Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, and Linner was an active member. Both men are admired by their fellow firefighters Fire Rescue Chief Bob Struble said.

Struble said Baldwin had left Steamboat to work as a paramedic in Fort Collins for a time, but returned last fall to join the flight crew and renewed his connection with the fire department.

Hospital CEO Karl Gills predicted that the loss of three air ambulance crew members would be felt beyond Mountain Flight Service and YVMC and that it would cause the entire emergency response community to grieve.

Struble agreed.

"Dave (Linner) was a great guy, a friend to everybody. Everyone respected him for his skills, not only as a firefighter but also as a medic. Losing him and the others is especially painful because of the tightness of firefighters, ER personnel and the air ambulance program. It's a pretty tight group. It's like losing a family."

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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