Death rained from the sky over Flagstaff Sunday afternoon as a midair collision of two medical helicopters killed six and critically injured a seventh.
The aircraft were each carrying patients to Flagstaff Medical Center and went down at 3:49 p.m. on McMillan Mesa about a half-mile east of the hospital.
An exploding fuel tank in one of the aircraft slightly injured two ground ambulance workers and touched off a 10-acre wildfire that was extinguished by local firefighters.
Bill Summers witnessed the accident from his home at Lomalai Lane and Forest Avenue.
He was watching one of the helicopters approach the hospital for a landing when he saw the second helicopter.
"He was coming in from the south, low and fast, and I said what the heck is going on here — they are going to hit each other," Summers said.
"About that time the one coming in from the south went under the other one and there was an explosion."
The crash is believed to be the single worst air disaster inside the city of Flagstaff.
Classic Lifeguard Aeromedical Services of Page operated one of the copters, said Matt Stein, program director and lead pilot.
The other copter was part of the Guardian Air Transport of Flagstaff and operated by Air Methods of Englewood, Colo., according to the Federal Aviaton Administration.
Guardian Air is a division of Flagstaff Medical Center. An FMC official said the hospital owns the aircraft and provides the medical personnel on Guardian flights, while Air Methods provides the pilot and maintenance.
Sunday's fatal crash is the second for Guardian Air in 12 years (see related story on Page A8).
Stein said the Classic flight had a crew of three and was bringing in a patient from the Grand Canyon's South Rim. Killed were the patient, the pilot and the medic aboard. The flight nurse was in critical condition Sunday night at FMC, Stein said.
"We've been in business 20 years, and these are the first fatalities we've experienced," Stein said. "They were all heroes. They were out doing a great service for their communities."
Stein did not release the names of the crash victims, except to say that the pilot for Classic was experienced, with more than 10,000 hours of flight time. He added that it's rare for two medical helicopters to attempt to land at a hospital at the same time.
Flagstaff Medical Center doesn't have flight controllers, he said, and it's up to the pilots to watch each other as they approach.
"It's just a very unfortunate tragedy," Stein said.
Three people aboard the Guardian Air copter, including the patient, died. Further information about the Guardian flight was not being released late Sunday night.
DEBRIS SCATTERED EVERYWHERE
Summers, the eyewitness, said he tried to keep the helicopters within sight but the accident scattered debris in every direction.
"The blades — the main rotors — went every which way. [The helicopters] spun around and went down," he said. "I thought maybe the other one, the one coming from the south made it, but I never did see it again."
A few minutes later, Summers said he heard a second explosion when presumably the fuel from the one of the helicopters ignited.
John Layshock, another witness, was nearby during the secondary explosion.
"As I went to take a couple of steps, I was looking down, basically, when a really big explosion happened — it kind of took my breath away," Layshock said, describing the remnants of the explosion as a "mushroom cloud."
He said several people were nearby during the secondary explosion.
"There were people around the crash site — that were on the crash site — when the explosion happened."
Added Layshock: "That kind of freaked me out so I left because I didn't have any business there," he said.
Just minutes earlier, the professional photographer was sitting on his parent's porch with his aunt as he watched the helicopters buzz over the trees on McMillan Mesa, northbound toward the hospital.
Moments later, the pair heard the collision.
Layshock turned around to see a shower of metal parts disperse into the forest.
A journalist on vacation from West Yellowstone, Layshock grabbed his camera as he ran toward one of the crash sites.
The local emergency units responding to the crash were the Flagstaff fire and police departments, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office and Search and Rescue, Guardian Medical Transport, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, U.S. Forest Service, and the Summit/Fort Valley Fire Department.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said a team will leave for Flagstaff from Washington, D.C., on Monday to take over the crash investigation from the FAA.
Holloway said NTSB teams typically issue a preliminary report that includes only the general facts surrounding the crash. A full report that describes the cause of the crash usually comes within 12 to 18 months.
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