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Crash cause remains unclear, Names of crew and patient released

September 2, 2011

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Kristin Hoppa
St. Joseph News-Press

POSTED: 10:48 pm CDT August 27, 2011

As federal investigators continued to comb through a field of wreckage, Air Methods Corp. released new details concerning the LifeNet helicopter crash that killed four individuals Friday night. The medical helicopter was low on fuel at the time of the crash, but officials said it could be some time before the exact cause is known. “The pilot recognized the need to put additional fuel onboard the aircraft and diverted to Midwest National Air Center in Mosby, Mo.,” said Craig Yale, vice president of corporate development with Air Methods, the company that owns and operates LifeNet. The Federal Aviation Administration said the crash occurred about a mile from the Mosby air field in Clay County. The helicopter originally took off from Rosecrans Memorial Airport in St. Joseph to pick up a patient at Harrison County Community Hospital in Bethany, Mo. It then left with the patient and crew for Liberty Hospital. Air Methods identified the LifeNet personnel who died as Randy Bever, 47, a flight nurse from Savannah, Mo.; Chris Frakes, 36, a flight paramedic from Savannah, Mo.; and James Freudenberg, 34, the pilot from Rapid City, S.D. Terry Tacoronte, 58, was the patient who died in the crash, the woman’s husband said. “We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the family, friends, and colleagues of our employees and the patient who perished in Missouri,” said Aaron Todd, chief executive officer of Air Methods. Mr. Yale said Air Methods personnel, members of the National Transportation Safety Board and the helicopter manufacturers remained at the crash scene and searched for the reason that downed the aircraft. “The aircraft had its last communication with our communication center (in Omaha, Neb.) at 6:41 p.m. (Friday),” he said. “We have a tracking system on all of our aircrafts where we receive a ‘ping,’ if you will, about every 30 seconds that shows us where the aircraft is.” Some of the initial speculation centered on the fuel level. Air Methods officials verified that the pilot recognized the need to refuel, but they did not say if the helicopter ran out of gas. Victor Tacoronte, the husband of Terry Tacoronte, said he was told, by a law enforcement official, that fuel was an issue. “They confirmed the guy ran out of gas,” Mr. Tacoronte said. “They took me in a little room and told me a helicopter went down.” He said he was stunned and said it appeared someone was “playing Russian roulette with my wife.” A Dallas-area attorney who specializes in aviation litigation said poor weather at night is the leading cause of accidents involving medical helicopters. Jon Kettles said a crash due to lack of fuel is not unprecedented, but he added that a pilot should be able to land safely even if the engine shuts off. “You are trained to react to an engine failure,” he said. “Even if you make multiple mistakes and run out of gas, you should be able to land safely.” Mr. Kettles said the National Transportation Safety Board held four days of hearings in 2009 following 85 medical helicopter accidents over six years. He said the accident rate dropped substantially from 2009 to 2011. “These type of accidents shouldn’t happen,” he said. According the American Eurocopter manufacturers, the helicopter, an AS350-B2, had a fuel capacity of 143 gallons. Mr. Yale said Air Methods pilots undergo “twice as much training” as the FAA mandates and train on a flight simulator, but said he could not detail specialty emergency training. Mr. Yale described the helicopter involved in the crash as a 2003 aircraft with 3,652 hours on the airframe. The pilot, Mr. Freudenberg, joined the Air Methods flight team in 2010 after serving in Afghanistan and had more than 2,100 flight hours. Mr. Bever, the flight nurse, had a great passion for the LifeNet program at Heartland Regional Medical Center. Mr. Yale said Mr. Bever supported the beginning of the LifeNet team in 1998. Mr. Frakes, a flight paramedic, had been with Air Methods since 2006. Mr. Tacoronte said his wife went to the Bethany hospital with severe stomach pains and was being transported to Liberty for further treatment. Mr. Tacoronte said he lives in Colorado but he and his wife were in the area because Mrs. Tacoronte wanted to be closer to her mother. “It’s a time to be strong, for everyone,” he said. “I think I’ll be OK until I actually see her.” Members of the medical community also were grieving. Heartland Health spokeswoman Marcy George said Mr. Bever and Mr. Frakes worked for both Heartland and LifeNet. She said the hospital community was stunned by the news and was making counseling available to numerous people. “Obviously, our people are very upset,” she said. “We’re providing all the support we can. This is a terrible tragedy.” Heartland CEO Dr. Mark Laney said Mr. Bever was the lead registered nurse in the emergency department and had been with the hospital for 23 years. Mr. Frakes had been with Heartland for five years. “We are all shocked and saddened by this tragic accident,” Dr. Laney said in a statement. “They will be greatly missed by all of the Heartland team. Our thoughts and condolences go out to all of the families of the victims of the crash.” Robert Powell, assistant EMS director in Doniphan County, Kan., told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Saturday that he had known Bever for 20 years and hadn’t been able to stop crying since he got word of the crash. “When the paramedics like me were in the field, Randy was the guy we called,” Mr. Powell said. “He was the guy you wanted walking out of that helicopter when it landed.” Describing the accident as a “catastrophic crash,” Mr. Yale extended his and the company’s concern, sympathy and sorrow to the flight crew and the patient’s families. He said Air Methods will organize a public memorial this week. CFALL, Mo.— The fourth victim of Friday's helicopter crash has been identified. She is 58-year-old Terry Tacoronte of McFall, Missouri - . Terry Tacoronte was suffering from severe stomach pains - Friday, and was on her way to Liberty for possible surgery in a Life-Net helicopter.

She never made it to Liberty Hospital. Victor Tacoronte says he's shattered over the loss of his wife and over the mystery surrounding her death.

"Yeah! I'm mad!" Tacoronte said. "I'm mad about the whole situation."

Tacoronte says he's upset authorities gave him no information about his wife's death in the early stages. He says he had to go out to the crash site to find answers. He admits that wasn't easy.

"It was sad," he said. "There was an aura to me in the area. Looking at it was devastating to me."

Tacoronte says investigators told him the pilot could have eased the chopper to the ground even though it was low on fuel. The trouble is Tacoronte says the pilot was low on altitude, too.

"So instead of being able to land safely, he took a nosedive into the ground," he said.

You might say Terry and Victor Tacoronte were like newlyweds, married only seven years. Victor says they met while working together in Sedalia. After dating for a time, Victor says he gave Terry a special necklace made just for her.

"The heart symbolized my love for her," he said. "It wasn't the biggest thing at the time, but she loved it very much."

He says she only took the necklace off once. He says she gave it to him right before she took that fateful chopper flight Friday.

"I gave her a kiss," he said. "That was it. That's what's envisioned in my mind to this point. If I close my eyes, that's what I see."

Victor Tacoronte says his wife was his friend, his soul mate, and now he says he'll make sure nothing happens to that special piece of jewelry.

"It's guaranteed for life," he said.

He says he wishes the same guarantee applied to his wife.

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