Wounds still run deep on 2nd anniversary of fatal 2015 Flight For Life crash in Frisco
July 2, 2017
This is the first installment of a two-part series remembering the 2015 Flight For Life helicopter crash. Part two will appear in the July 4 edition of the Summit Daily and is available online here.
Two years later, Jordan Dobrin still gets choked up thinking back to his memories of the Flight For Life helicopter crash beside St. Anthony Summit Medical Center on July 3, 2015.
The Frisco resident was out for a Friday afternoon bike ride along the familiar recpath route next to the helipad when, like any number of times before it, he saw the Lifeguard 2 prepare to lift off. It wasn't until he looked back over his shoulder and saw it awkwardly spinning counterclockwise upon takeoff that he realized something was off.
"Whatever was happening just didn't seem right," said the 52-year-old. "I thought it was strange that he'd be doing that maneuver on purpose at that time. I knew something was not right, that's the best way I could say it."
Moments later — approximately 32 seconds, according to initial National Transportation Safety Board investigation findings — after reaching an estimated 100 feet in the air, the helicopter violently fell back to earth. First colliding with the roof of a parked Winnebago, the copter toppled over onto its side and fuel immediately began spewing from the wreckage before it erupted into a fireball.
Almost instantaneously, panicked observers and others throughout the county who spotted the rising plumes of black smoke on the busy holiday weekend overwhelmed the 911-call center.
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"We've got medical personnel from the hospital coming out," hurriedly exclaimed one female caller. "Flames everywhere. It's bad …"
Dobrin, a mortgage broker, was already clipped out of his pedals and standing nearly in shock. The piece of shrapnel that smashed into his back wheel when the chopper came down, leaving his bike inoperable, barely registered as he watched in disbelief while the events played out before him a mere 30 feet away.
David and Betsey Martens, up from Boulder to visit their condo in Wildernest for the weekend, were also out for a ride that day. As they passed by heading west on the recpath from Breckenridge to Frisco, they also took note of the aircraft oddly gyrating and wobbling as it ascended to make a scheduled appearance at a Boy Scouts event in nearby Eagle-Vail.
"It just went back and forth, back and forth," said David. "I realized it was in trouble and was coming right toward us. It went up in flames and we were right below it. We dropped our bikes and ran toward the helicopter thinking that maybe there was something we can do to help."
The accident, which entailed a full-scale response from area fire departments and law enforcement to snuff out and get under control, would ultimately take the life of veteran pilot Patrick Mahany and critically injure the two flight nurses aboard, Dave Repsher and Matthew Bowe. And the scars left on the community for those who witnessed the crash and were involved in its aftermath also run deep — many still unresolved — as the tragedy's two-year anniversary arrives.
"We're still just trying to heal from it," said Paul Chodkowski, CEO of St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. "There's a sensitivity surrounding this issue, and it's a memory someday people hope to put behind us. So we continue that process, and we're never going to be done with it."
Day of Despair
Just after 1:39 p.m. on a day off, Sheriff's Office operations division commander Jaime FitzSimons rounded the bend of State Highway 9 toward Frisco when he came to a stop at the red light at Peak One Drive. He turned his attention upward to the sky and saw the growing cloud of heartbreak. Quickly judging it too dark for a wildfire, he settled on the worst.
"You start putting it together in your mind, 'Oh my God, the helicopter must have gone down,'" recalled FitzSimons, now the county's sheriff. "It was the immediate thought, because of the big, black billowing smoke, and because I know the hangar is right there."
He made the left turn and raced into the parking lot to get a first glimpse of the chaos. A flood of hospital personnel was rushing to assist with the crisis, using handheld extinguishers to try to put out the fiery blaze while others worked to provide aid to the 32-year-old Bowe, who managed to free himself, and pull Mahany, 64, from the crumpled cockpit.
The emergency fire signal went out and Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue's Engine 2 was first on scene in less than five minutes. Seven more vehicles would eventually join and assist on a suppression effort that proved challenging and took roughly 15 minutes to contain because the fuel was burning and flowing outward. Also swallowed up by the flames were the Winnebago and a pickup truck, both owned by hospital staff.
Unbeknownst to the fire crews when they arrived, however, was how many people were on the helicopter, if any patients might have been involved, or if everyone escaped. They didn't know then that Repsher had also made it out, but was soaked in jet fuel and totally immersed in fire. From Dobrin's vantage, when Repsher suddenly appeared out of nowhere, the good Samaritan instantly worried the helicopter might explode and sprinted up the hill screaming for the flight nurse to roll on the ground away from the wreckage.
"It was just flames everywhere, and he was fully engulfed. We were able to get a good amount out, but there were sections that just kept coming back because of the fuel," Dobrin said, his voice wavering as he held back tears. "This is the part that always gets me — he kept asking us to get the flames out, and we just couldn't get them all out. It was excruciating not being able to."
The Martens were close by and assisted Dobrin in trying to smother Repsher with dirt and then the bike jerseys from off their backs. But the initial shock of seeing the 45-year-old flight nurse emerge completely ablaze is an image that may never leave their minds.
"It was one of the most horrifying things we've ever experienced," said David Martens, who received burns to his index finger in the encounter. "To see a man walking out of that flaming inferno, it was like your worst nightmare from a horror movie."
Dobrin was eventually able to get the attention of law enforcement and those with extinguishers up in the parking lot. A sheriff's deputy lost his footing rushing to help and fell down the hill, breaking both his wrists as hospital staff finally put the flight nurse out. With life and the fire being managed, responding patrollers spent their time creating a scene perimeter, interviewing witnesses and accounting for helicopter fragments strewn about a large area for NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration investigations.
Repsher would end up with burns on more than 90 percent of his body, in a coma for six months where he nearly died at least three times and having to relearn how to swallow. He was finally released from University of Colorado Hospital in the metro area on Aug. 2, 2016, but today still needs almost constant dialysis for his failed kidneys. A donor was found and Repsher is due for a transplant this upcoming fall.
Mahany, meanwhile, was pulled from the badly damaged fuselage after the third attempt by hospital technician Jimmy Rhodes, who sustained minor burns. Rhodes declined to participate in this story, but previously spoke at an October 2015 Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue ceremony to honor his efforts.
"When one of the nurses said the helicopter went down, I just started running," he said. "By the time I got there, the heat was so intense. You never leave a man down regardless of the situation. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Mahany, who had been a pilot with Flight For Life since 1987 and possessed a Purple Heart and Bronze Star from his military service in the Vietnam War, was quickly transported to the ER. His wife Karen fortuitously made it to the hospital in time to say goodbye before, according to a coroner report, he succumbed to internal blunt-force injuries, smoke inhalation and second-degree burns.
"It was the greatest honor to be able to be there when he walked into heaven," said Karen. "Most pilot widows don't get that opportunity. So I'm so thankful that I got to tell Patrick all the things I wanted at the end, and that he got to die surrounded by people who loved him and he didn't die in a fiery crash."
Moving Forward, But Not On
The physical toll remains heavy for Repsher and his wife Amanda. She went on leave from her job as an administrative nurse with Centura Health to be by her husband's side while he battled for his life. She often calls Dave her guardian angel and hero.
Like Repsher, Bowe was eventually airlifted to a Front Range hospital following the crash. Despite suffering internal injuries and a life-altering permanent disability, he managed to return to his flight nurse position four months later, though recently left the organization.
They are now seeking unspecified monetary damages in separate lawsuits filed in Summit County District Court against Airbus Helicopters, the manufacturer of the model AS350-B3e aircraft, and Englewood, Colorado-based helicopter operator Air Methods Corporation. The lawsuits assert negligence and strict liability, citing defective design and failure to properly inspect, maintain and service the helicopter.
An initial NTSB report presented at a March 2017 meeting in Washington, D.C., concluded a combination of factors, including several safety hardware issues coupled with human error, led to the accident. The crash was survivable, investigators determined, but the lack of a spill-resistant fuel system as required on most aircraft like it produced a much greater chance of it being fatal.
The attorneys representing Bowe and the Repshers, Dillon-based Peter Rietz and Gary Robb of Kansas City, Missouri, have advised their clients to avoid interviews until after the trial, which is currently scheduled for spring 2018. A friend of Bowe's passed along his request not to be contacted by media, and Amanda stated the family looks forward to detailing what they've gone through with his recovery at a later time.
"It's a little nerve-wracking," she said of the two-year mark. "Every day is a blessing, every day that's Dave here. In the future we want to share the story once we're on the other side of the lawsuit. It's going to be an ever-evolving journey for us …"
Instead of pursuing litigation, Karen Mahany made it her charge to push for increased federal aviation safety in Congress. She said it's also helped to move forward with her grief.
"No amount (of money) makes up for losing your husband," she said. "I would rather save all of the crew members Patrick so desperately wanted to protect by trying to keep this in the public eye. It's so much better to turn something horribly bad into something good. I hope the day comes that this kind of tragedy just never happens. Everybody hopes that, but if we don't change things, it's going to continue to happen, without fail."
St. Anthony Summit Medical Center will hold a small prayer service Monday morning at 10:30 a.m. at the memorial established near the site of the crash and dedicated this past October.
"I'll go to the service on Monday and I will cry," said Chodkowski. "So that's just the way it is. We deal with it as a whole group. But we continue our service, we have to continue on, with a loss that you suffer, and continue and move forward. And that's what we've done these two years."
A moment of silence will also be observed when county fire personnel assist with the annual setup of the Frisco Fourth of July fireworks display over Dillon Reservoir. Lake Dillon Fire chief Jeff Berino was helping wire the annual tradition in 2015 when the helicopter went down. He bolted to his car and was there within minutes.
"Over 37-plus years in the business, I've run tens of thousands of calls, literally," said Berino. "And a few you will remember forever, and that was one of them — just because it was one of ours. It was just one of those moments, you knew."
The emotional weight has stuck with many civilian first responders, too.
The Martens say investigators never asked them for a witness statement. They were also unable to reconnect with Dobrin, whose name they didn't know, after their joint efforts to assist on that dismal day. They've tried their best to follow Repsher's recovery and hope at some point to meet him.
"That was just a single, incredible experience that we'll never have closure for," said Betsey. "I just think trauma always needs closure if it's available, and we've gone back several times to try and get that some way. It took maybe a month to really let the experience process itself. But it will be one of those experiences that we'll remember vividly for our entire lives."
For Dobrin, it's only in the last month that he's been able to return to what was formerly a favorite place in the county to get a little exercise on his bicycle without the personal anguish being front and center in his mind.
"It's the first time since it happened that I went over there a few weeks back and I felt like going back," he said. "I'm a lot better now than I was a year ago. Obviously, the remembrance of him, asking, begging me to get the fire out, that's the one thing that always gets me. And so, I'll probably never get over that. The rest of it is much better now than it used be."
Pick up the July 4 edition of the Summit Daily for the second installment of this series — a closer look at how Karen Mahany has become an advocate for aviation safety since the 2015 crash.
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