Questions on crash

Our view : Despite the well-regarded safety record of Maryland State Police medevac unit, Sunday's helicopter crash deserves review by several agencies

October 01, 2008

A teenager survives a weekend car accident with little if any physical injuries, only to die in the crash of the Maryland State Police helicopter that was whisking her to a trauma center. Did the 17-year-old really need to be flown to the hospital, especially in such bad weather that night?

The chopper transporting Ashley J. Younger and the driver of the car wasn't equipped with an electronic warning device that helps pilots fly in low visibility and avoid crashing into the ground. State police outfitted three other helicopters with the "early ground proximity warning system" during upgrades in recent years; why not the entire fleet?

These and many other troubling questions have been raised in the wake of the fatal weekend helicopter crash that is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. NTSB reviews are routine in such cases. But the circumstances of the accident should compel further reviews by the state police, Charles County officials and the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which operates the statewide system of trauma care. Killed in the Sunday morning crash were Ms. Younger; pilot Stephen H. Bunker, 59; Trooper Mickey C. Lippy, 34, a paramedic; and Tonya Mallard, 39, a volunteer emergency medical worker from the Waldorf squad.

The driver of the car, Jordan Wells, 18, of Waldorf, also was a patient on the helicopter and was critically injured when the chopper crashed in fog and rain in a wooded area just a few miles from its home base at Andrews Air Force Base.

NTSB member Deborah A.P. Hersman, who inspected the crash site, has already characterized the weather conditions that night as "challenging" for the pilot, a veteran and retired state trooper. But did the paramedics on the scene give sufficient thought to transporting the injured by ambulance instead?

Dr. Robert R. Bass, head of MIEMSS, says the extent of the initial car crash - the car's interior was crushed within 12 to 18 inches of a passenger- met one of the national standards for transporting an accident victim by helicopter. The patients complained of chest, back and spine pain that could indicate internal injuries. Was this the right call? The appropriate standard? Should paramedics have consulted with a trauma center physician in such a case before ordering a helicopter?

This was the first fatal crash of a state police medevac helicopter in 22 years; the fleet has had an exemplary safety record. Answering some of these distressing questions may not comfort the families of the brave men and women who died in the accident, but it could help prevent another tragedy.

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