An air ambulance out of Visalia crashed in an isolated area of Kern County Thursday night, killing the crew of three and the critically ill patient they were transporting, officials said.
The SkyLife Air Ambulance helicopter was flying a patient from Porterville to San Joaquin Community Hospital in Bakersfield when it crashed near Highway 65 and Sherwood Avenue east of McFarland, said Dan Lynch, EMS director for Fresno County. Lynch oversees emergency medical services in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties.
The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Todd Valeri, the head of American Ambulance, identified the pilot and medical staff killed in the crash during a news conference Friday.
The pilot was Thomas Hampl, 49, an employee of Rogers Helicopters for three years. The critical-care nurse on the aircraft was Marco Lopez, 42, a three-year SkyLife veteran. And the paramedic on the flight was Kyle Juarez, 37, a nine-year veteran at American Ambulance who spent the last three years on the SkyLife team. Both of the medical staff were from Fresno.
Valeri described Lopez as highly dedicated and “a really smart guy.” Juarez had an outgoing personality and “would light up a room,” he added.
Valeri said a female patient was being transported, but he declined to offer any other details, citing confidentiality rules.
The nurse and paramedic originally assigned to the Skylife helicopter Thursday night traded the shift with Lopez and Juarez to attend the company’s Christmas party, Valeri said.
Despite the need for round-the-clock staffing, 327 of the 600 American Ambulance employees attending the party. Valeri learned that the helicopter missed a positioning report just aft 7 p.m.
“That does happen,” he said. “We didn’t automatically think the worst.”
Valeri said the dispatcher working last night “had a gut feeling” and notified him. The next 90 minutes went by “really, really slow” as Valeri and other senior staff waited for confirmation. They got it around 9 p.m., and he notified the employees at the party.
“The party was over at that point.”
The employees gathered in clusters outside the company’s Herndon Avenue office in Clovis Thursday night as Lynch and Valeri briefed reporters inside.
Ray Pruitt, public information officer of the Kern County Sheriff's Department, said the helicopter’s tail was separated from the rest of the aircraft. He said the tail was about 30 yards from the helicopter’s cab, which remained relatively intact.
“It looks like the tail broke off,” Pruitt said.
Valeri said the company was still trying to notify relatives of some of the crew late Thursday night.
“They were wonderful people. It’s just so tragic and devastating,” Valeri said.
SkyLife Air Ambulance operates three air ambulance helicopters out of the Fresno and Visalia airports. Valeri said SkyLife has never had a helicopter go down since the partnership with Rogers was formed in 1991. The air ambulance transports about 1,000 patients a year, he said.
The SkyLife team has about 25 medical staff and 12 pilots who work together in alternating shifts.
“It’s a very tight-knit group,” Valeri said.
Lynch gave this account of the crash:
The crew responded to Porterville to pick up a patient from Sierra View Medical Center for transport to San Joaquin Community Hospital. At 6:52 p.m., the crew notified flight dispatch that it was leaving Porterville.
About 7:05 p.m., dispatch tried to raise the helicopter for a routine check in, but got no response. After checking with airport towers in Fresno and Bakersfield, the dispatch center notified Kern County authorities that the aircraft was missing and provided its last GPS reading east of McFarland.
A Kern County sheriff’s helicopter reported about 8:35 p.m. that it had found a debris field. Kern County deputies and fire crews, slowed by fog and darkness, reached the scene about 10 p.m. and confirmed that the patient and the crew of three had perished.
Lynch said the discovery was likely as painful for Kern County fire and sheriff’s personnel as it was for American Ambulance staff, since they would have met the air crew at to crashes and other medical emergencies requiring air transport.
“They were very well liked, these individuals,” Lynch said.
Valeri said weather conditions are always a factor in such flights, but the crew would have checked the weather before lifting off.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, but it may not know what caused it for several months.