The sole survivor of a medevac helicopter crash into the Potomac River late Monday night was retrieved from the 45 degree water by members of Alexandria Fire Department's Marine Operations Team. They were first on the scene of the accident thanks to the speed and maneuverability of their new fireboat.
"This was the first time the fireboat had actually been in service. This was our first emergency dispatch," said Battalion Chief Chet Helms, Alexandria Fire Department, Marine Operations Team.
The three responding members of Marine Operations Team arrived at the crash site just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at approximately 11:45 p.m. after being alerted by dispatch of an aircraft in the water.
"The chopper was down about one half mile south of the bridge and about a quarter mile east of the channel toward the Maryland shoreline," said Captain Rodney Masser, pilot of the fireboat.
"We spotted a survivor hanging on to a piece of the tail section. We signaled to him that we were going to throw him a life ring but he indicated he would not be able to handle it himself due to his injuries," Firefighter Tina Earley said.
That's when Earley went into the water to take the life ring to the victim. "I gently lowered him from the wreckage into the water. Then we pulled him into the boat and laid him on the rear platform and covered him. He was too badly injured to be taken below into the cabin area," she said.
The survivor, Jonathan Godfrey, a nurse, was one of three occupants of the medevac helicopter. The body of a second crew member, Paramedic Nicole Kielar, a native of Fairfax County, was recovered by divers from the District of Columbia Harbor Patrol, according to Firefighter Thomas Wheatley, another member of the Alexandria team. Pilot Joseph E. Schaefer, III, had not been located as of Tuesday night and was presumed dead.
"The survivor had a broken right arm, broken sternum, and other injuries. He was also very cold from being in the water. The most important thing was to get him out of the cold water," Earley said.
"Our primary concern was to get him on board safely. He was very cooperative and in good spirits considering what he had been through and his injuries," Masser said.
Reported to be operating out of Stafford, Va., the helicopter was apparently returning to its home base after dropping off a patient at Washington Hospital Center's MedSTAR trauma center. There were no patients on board at the time of the crash.
"The spot where it went down was really shallow and it was amazing how Captain Masser maneuvered the boat to get close to the victim," Wheatley said. Alexandria's new fireboat has a draft of only 20 inches and is propelled by water jets as opposed to propellers. This enables it to avoid damage from debris in the water and to maneuver close to victims without the threat of injury from propellers.
BOTH GODFREY and Kielar were brought by the Alexandria team to the emergency command post that had been established at Belle Haven Marina, according to the Alexandria Marine Operations Team. That's where they turned them over to members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Penn Daw Station who were operating the center in cooperation with Alexandria.
Godfrey was transported back to the trauma center where he was reported in fair condition Tuesday night. Kielar's body was released to the County Coroner, according to Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department officials.
Joining Alexandria's Marine Operations Team in the search and rescue operations were teams from Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and the District of Columbia Harbor Patrol along with the U.S. Coast Guard. Fairfax County's fireboat arrived shortly after Alexandria's. It is stationed at Gunston Station #20.
"By the time we got there Alexandria had made one viable rescue. We checked for other survivors but couldn't find any," said Technician Ken Athing, one of the six members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Marine Operations Team, including a paramedic, who responded to the emergency.
"We gathered over half of what was left of the aircraft as well as personal gear such as goggles, helmets, jackets and most of their medical supplies. There was also a maintenance log. We turned it all over to National Transportation and Safety Board representatives," Athing said.
Joining Athing in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue mission were Lt. John Richter, technicians Kevin Bell and Duane Briesch, firefighter Ed Potter and paramedic Cecil Green. Throughout the night, they used their night vision equipment in an attempt to locate the missing crew member, according to Athing.
Wheatley said, "We actually tried to move the remains of the helicopter with our boat in an effort to find the other person after the survivor told us three people were on board. We were out there all night long. We really have a lot of sympathy for the families of those crew members."
THE CAUSE of the crash remained under investigation Tuesday afternoon by the NTSB. One of the possibilities being explored was that it struck one of the high cranes being used in construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. "The survivor told the State Police they hit something," Wheatley said during a press conference at Alexandria City Dock early Tuesday morning.
At a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Oxon Hill, Md., Ellen Conners, NTSB chair, said, "We'll rule out each possibility one by one. It could have been a bird strike, mechanical failure, hitting one of the cranes, or pilot error." The remains of the aircraft were taken to the NTSB facility for examination and evaluation.
A traffic camera on the Maryland side of the bridge did pick up an image of a low flying aircraft about the time of the crash. But, at the present time, there is no proof it was the doomed helicopter, according to Conners. "The image is not very good. That's why we are taking the tape back to our lab to have it enhanced and studied," she said.
"All five cranes will be physically inspected by us. As of now (Tuesday afternoon) they have only been inspected by the owners of the cranes. They reported to us there was no damage. But we will do our own inspection," Conners said.
Since 9/11, helicopters, when flying along the path of the river, have been restricted to a height of 200 feet, according to officials. Several of the construction cranes reach a height of 300 feet.
Questions were raised about lighting on the cranes for visibility at night. John Undeland, public affairs director, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, deferred to NTSB for any comment on possible involvement of the construction cranes with the crash. However, he maintained all the cranes have lights on them for air traffic recognition.
According to investigators, the medevac helicopter was owned by Air Methods Corp and operated through a subsidiary, LifeNet in Stafford County. Air Methods Corp operates a fleet of such aircraft in various areas of the country. Tuesday's crash was the second in the past week by a medevac helicopter owned by the company; the other was in Mississippi, according to officials.
Overall, there have been 11 medical helicopter crashes nationwide within the past 12 months resulting in 30 deaths, according to NTSB statistics. Officials expressed concern about these statistics.