Three of four members of a Yampa Valley Air Ambulance crew died late Tuesday night when their plane crashed near Rawlins, Wyo., Yampa Valley Medical Center officials reported.
The plane, a 1978 Beechcraft King Air E-90 turbo prop operated by Mountain Flight Service of Steamboat Springs carried a pilot and three Yampa Valley Medical Center employees. Pilot Tim Benway, 35, was killed. Also killed were air ambulance director and flight nurse Dave Linner, 36, and flight nurse Jennifer Wells, 30.
Emergency Medical Technician Tim Baldwin, 35, survived the crash and was taken to Carbon County Hospital in Rawlins in critical condition. On Wednesday morning, Baldwin was flown to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, where he is listed in serious condition. He is expected to recover.
The plane was en route to Rawlins, about 150 miles north of Steamboat, to transport a patient from Carbon County Hospital to Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, when it went down at about 9:40 p.m., Carbon County Sheriff Jerry Colson said. An ambulance crew waiting on the ground in Rawlins to load the patient, who had been injured in a car accident, reported the plane as overdue at about 10:05 p.m.
The ambulance crew became concerned about the plane after the lights to the runway were turned on by the pilot and then went off without the plane landing. The pilot also had not terminated the flight plan, said Rawlins Municipal Airport Fixed Based Operator Dwight France.
Rescue crews already were gearing up to start a search when Baldwin used a cell phone to notify Yampa Valley Medical Center that the plane had crashed. The hospital then contacted the Carbon County Sheriff's Office, which kept up the three-way communication for more than an hour and a half before Baldwin's cell phone died, Colson said.
"First of all, we had no idea where the crash occurred. And the weather was a factor; it created poor visibility," Colson said about the search.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration investigated the plane crash late Wednesday afternoon, but windy conditions and disappearing daylight led them to call off the investigation before much was determined. NTSB representative David Bowling said the shallow impact of the plane leads him to think the pilot was in control when the plane hit the side of a ridge.
"At this time, we really do not know if we are looking at mechanical issues. Obviously, the weather was a concern in the area last night," Bowling said. "We can't really point to a cause to the accident. We are still gathering all the evidence. Weather is just an assumption. Planes are designed to fly in certain kinds of weather, especially low visibility, which is one of the concerns."
A report made close to the time the plane crashed indicated that the cloud ceiling was at 1,600 feet, visibility was at about 2.5 miles, and wind was not much of a factor, France said.
Airplane crashes in Carbon County are infrequent, France said. The last fatality was in February on Elk Mountain. Twenty-one people have been killed in seven plane crashes since 1982, the Rawlins Daily Times reported.
The area where the plane crash happened is not known as particularly troublesome terrain, though Colson said a cloud of fog was covering the ridge Tuesday night.
The location of the crash indicated that Benway, who reportedly was attempting to make an instrument landing, was on the correct flight path, but for unknown an reason was flying too low, France said. The crash site indicated it was almost in direct line with the runway.
Snow tracks showed the plane skidded along the ground for several hundred feet before coming to a stop about 100 feet from the top of the ridgeline, France said.
"Our question kind of is, why the plane was as low as (it) was in the area that (it) hit," France said. "I really don't think the runway environment was in sight. We have really good runway lights and strobe lights, which should help the pilot find the airport easily."
In an interview with authorities, Baldwin said nothing seemed wrong with the plane until it hit the ground. The rescue crews also did not find any ice on the airplane.
"It is possible ice could have been on the airplane, but it didn't appear on there when we got there," France said.
Emergency officials mobilized to find the plane, but they were faced with searching in heavy snow in wide-open sagebrush-covered terrain punctuated by draws and ridges. Using all-terrain and four-wheel drive vehicles, more than 90 people searched a 20-mile area.
Knowing that Benway most likely had used an instrument flight approach into the area, France said he had a good sense of what pattern the plane was flying. The searchers also knew the plane was last seen on the radar at about 8 miles from the airport, at which time it dropped below 10,000 feet.
Baldwin's phone conversation let the searchers know that he was still alive, but he only could identify where he was through sound, telling them when he heard a train whistle and rescue sirens. The information did not give workers much to go on because sound travels far in the open area.
The group also had emergency locator transmitters, but France said the topography of rolling ridges broke up the signal. The crews would pick up weak signals throughout the night and then lose them as the terrain changed. At one point in the night, a searcher on an ATV came within a quarter of a mile of the site, but did not have a radio and could not see the wreckage.
After the crash, France said falling snow made the visibility much worse, and the rescue workers called off a flight search for the wreckage.
"It made for a difficult search," France said.
Shortly after Baldwin's cell phone died at about 11:30 p.m., the rescue crews were able to pick up a stronger signal from the ELT. They were aided by crews from Hanna, a town about 40 miles away whose rescue crews brought in a stronger radio to pick up the signal.
"The telephone kept us going. Also it was something, I am sure, that made him feel like he was going to be rescued," France said.
Signals from the plane's ELT ultimately led rescuers to the crash site just before 2 a.m. The smell of fuel, which spilled during the wreck, also alerted rescue workers to the site.
The plane was found on the opposite side of Shark Tooth Ridge from the Rawlins Municipal Airport, about 3 1/2 miles northeast of the runway, France said.
Baldwin was conscious when rescue crews arrived, but hypothermia was starting to set in, France said. Baldwin was extricated from the airplane with a backboard found in the wreckage. He was transported in a Chevrolet Suburban down a winding and rough two-track road for about 2 1/2 miles before reaching an ambulance on a paved road.
"He was conscious, able to talk to us and really cold. He was quite badly hurt," France said. "I think we were really lucky to find him when we did. I don't think he would have survived all night."
Colson thinks the pilot and other passengers in the plane died on impact. Benway and Linner were in the pilot and co-pilot seats. All victims had to be extricated from the plane.
Agencies from across the region were called in to assist with the search and rescue, including the Rawlins and Sinclair police departments; Rawlins Search and Rescue; the Carbon County, Rawlins, Hanna and Sinclair fire departments; the Bureau of Land Management, the Wyoming Highway Patrol; Rawlins Ambulance, Emergency Management; civilian volunteers; Red Cross and France Flying Service, according to a press release from the Carbon County Sheriff's Office.
"All of us at Yampa Valley Medical Center are deeply saddened and shocked at this tragic loss," said Karl Gills, CEO of Yampa Valley Medical Center. "All of those aboard are committed to providing extraordinary care to their sick and injured patients. Our entire organization and those who worked with the air ambulance program have been impacted."
Yampa Valley Medical Center provides the medical personnel for the air ambulance flights. Mountain Flight Service is contracted to operate the air ambulance. Mountain Flight Service is based at Steamboat Springs Airport -- Bob Adams Field.
It was not uncommon for the Yampa Valley Ambulance to pick up patients from the Carbon County Hospital, France said, but he was unsure about which pilots flew in and out of the Rawlins airport. The hospital does a lot of air transfers, France said, because it does not have many specialists and prefers to fly patients to better equipped hospitals rather than use Interstate 80 to transport them.
A helicopter from Casper first was asked to do the flight, but was out on another call, France said. The patient waiting for the flight was in a traffic accident earlier that day on Wyoming Highway 789, about 10 miles south of I-80, Colson said.
The NTSB is continuing to investigate the crash, anticipating a field investigation to take a few days and a final report to be finished within four to six months.
This is the second time in less than two years that the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance has gone down. On March 19, 2003, the air ambulance crashed near Kremmling in an incident that was blamed on pilot error. The pilot is no longer with Mountain Flight Service. The three people on the plane in that crash -- including Linner -- walked away with minor injuries.
Bowling said the two accidents were not similar.
The air ambulance was damaged in the 2003 crash and was replaced with a plane that was dedicated in May 2003. The replacement plane was a 1978 Beech E-90 outfitted with emergency medical supplies and equipment for use in transporting patients.