Three die in medical helicopter crash near Tucumcari

 By Thomas Garcia and Steve Hansen
QCS Staff

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a helicopter crash July 17 near Newkirk that claimed the lives of three employees of Tristate CareFlight, a helicopter medical flight service that serves Dan C. Trigg Memorial Hospital in Tucumcari.

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The charred area at the center of this photo is where a Tristate Care Flight helicopter en route to Tucumcari crashed early Thursday morning, killing the pilot and two medical personnel. The crash site is the side of a mesa located in Guadalupe County , 34 miles west of Tucumcari, near Newkirk. Photo courtesy New Mexico State Police.

New Mexico State Police identified the crash victims as David Cavigneaux, 46, of Rio Rancho; Rebecca Serkey, 29 of Rio Rancho; and James Butler, 46, of Albuquerque.

The three were flying from Santa Fe to Tucumcari to pick up a patient when their helicopter crashed into a mesa and burst into flames about two miles north of Newkirk, 34 miles from Tucumcari. The crash occurred about 2:50 a.m.

John Cole, Tristate’s director of business development, said the helicopter had been dispatched from Santa Fe to Tucumcari because the crew normally based in Tucumcari was responding to another service call.  An aircraft from another service was dispatched to pick up the Tucumcari patient when Tristate learned that something had gone wrong with the flight from Santa Fe, Cole said.

Investigators from the NTSB were examining the crash scene last Friday, Keith Holloway, a  public affairs representative for the board, said.  After documenting the location of wreckage components, Holloway said, the investigators planned to move the wreckage from the crash site to a secure location to complete the investigation, Holloway said.  Crash investigations can take up to 18 months, he said.

TriState is assisting the safety board in its initial investigation of the wreckage, Cole said Friday.

“We at TriState CareFlight are grieving the loss of three admired members of our emergency medical transport family,” Cole said in a statement.  “Our thoughts are for their families and friends in remembering the commitment to saving lives.”

On July 17, employees of the Dan C. Trigg Memorial Hospital joined Tristate CareFlight personnel based in Tucumcari for a candle-light vigil for the crash victims, Trigg hospital administrator Lance Labine said.

A similar service was scheduled the next evening at Christus St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, the location from which the helicopter had been dispatched, according to hospital spokesperson Mandi Kane.

In a written statement, Christus St. Vincent said, “These crew members were our colleagues, our friends, and our neighbors. Our hearts, and our prayers, go out to the loved ones of these extraordinary individuals, who were committed to saving lives every single day.  This skilled and compassionate crew transported patients to and from our hospital on a daily basis.”

New Mexico State Police Sgt. Damyan Brown said officers were dispatched to the last known location of the helicopter, about 30 miles west of Tucumcari near Newkirk, and enlisted help in locating the aircraft from Phil Bidegain, manager of the T-4 Ranch where the crash occurred.

A ranch employee spotted the aircraft fully engulfed in flames on the side of a mesa in rugged terrain.

“It crashed and burned,” Bidegain said. “No survivors …. Everything burned except for the very end of the tail.”

The ranch employee said he had been awakened by a sound but went back to sleep because he didn’t know what it was, Bidegain said.

Lynn Lunsford, spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Commission, said radar lost track of the flight at 2:48 a.m.

The FAA said the cause of the crash was unknown, but the National Weather Service said there were low clouds and gusty winds, and possibly rain in the area at the time.

“The combination … likely led at least in part to that crash,” said Brian Guyer, a meteorologist at the NWS in Albuquerque.

Kansas City attorney and medical helicopter safety expert Gary Robb said helicopters crash at a rate 40 percent higher than small, fixed-wing aircraft. And medical helicopters crash at an even higher rate.

“Helicopters don’t glide,” he said. “You  must pay attention every second. If you don’t, they are dangerous.”

The helicopter was a Model A109E built by AugustaWestland, S.p.a., an English-Italian company, in the year 2000.

It was last certified on Aug. 31, 2012. The certificate was good until Aug. 31, 2015.

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