NTSB: Determining cause of fatal helicopter crash could take weeks

gkocher1@herald-leader.comJune 7, 2013 

MANCHESTER — A National Transportation Safety Board official said it could take six to eight weeks to determine a probable cause in a helicopter crash that killed three men Thursday night in Manchester.

The NTSB will release a preliminary finding next week on the crash, said Shawn Etcher, air safety investigator with the NTSB.

The helicopter did not have a "black box," but it did have devices that record altitude and speed. Those devices will be sent to Washington, D.C. where data will be downloaded, Etcher said.

"Right now we're just gathering the data," Etcher said Friday in an interview.

The helicopter's pilot was Eddy Sizemore, a former London police officer, who retired as a deputy in the sheriff's office but came back in 2011 as chief deputy, said Gilbert Acciardo, Laurel County Sheriff's public affairs deputy.

Sizemore, 61, of London, left the sheriff's office earlier this year for the Lifeteam pilot's job. Also killed were flight paramedic Herman "Lee" Dobbs, 40, of London, and flight nurse Jesse Jones, 28, of Pineville, according to Clay County Coroner Danny Finley. It was Dobbs' second day on the job for the company that owned the helicopter, Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson said.

The accident occurred about 11:16 p.m. Thursday while the helicopter, which was returning from transporting a patient to a hospital in London, crashed in the parking lot of Paces Creek Elementary School, just off U.S. 421 in Manchester. The helicopter was on its final approach and about 150 yards from the helipad where it was based, Johnson said. No patients were on board.

"The victims died on impact," said Finley. But Finley said he won't know an exact cause of death until he has the results from autopsies.

An investigation was launched after the crash, and members of the Kentucky State Police and the Clay County Sheriff's Office were at the elementary school Friday morning. Officials with the FAA and the NTSB were on the scene Friday afternoon.

Some witnesses have said the helicopter didn't sound normal. However, officials said it is too early to pinpoint a cause.

On Friday, a helicopter circled the crash scene and surrounding area, apparently trying to find the tail section of the crashed aircraft.

Etcher, the NTSB investigator, said a tail section was found in some trees about 100 feet behind the crash site. The tail had not been recovered yet because it was in an area of poison ivy.

"There are some indications in the trees of damage marks, but we don't know if that is from the helicopter or some wind damage," Etcher said.

Removal and collection of the crash debris might begin Saturday afternoon and continue into Sunday, Etcher said. He said the debris would be put on a flatbed truck, secured and taken to a facility in Georgia for analysis.

Although residents reported a power outage, Etcher said there were no severed wires in the area. "It does not appear at this point that anything hit (a power line) because there have been no cuts in the wire."

Many residents gathered at a small shopping center across the road as investigators collected evidence. They stood next to their cars and in doorways watching and taking cellphone video of an area blocked off by police tape.

Among them was Zella Lawson, who said the victims of the crash often spoke to her as they passed the tanning salon where she works, which is next to the med-evac station.

"It's sad, they went out and saved people's lives," Lawson said. "Then they got their own lives taken."

Lawson said she spoke with the paramedics at around 8 p.m. Thursday.

"I would have never thought this would happen here," she said. "It's funny how you can talk to people one minute and then two hours later their lives are taken."

'There was nothing we could do'

Wes Whitehead, a nightwatchman at a nearby shopping center, said he saw fog Thursday night before the crash.

The first trooper on the scene reported that there was no fog, but Etcher also mentioned that there were conflicting reports about that.

In any case, the helicopter had already crashed and was burning by the time Whitehead got to the scene.

"A couple of cops had got there and were trying to see what they could do, and a couple of other people would come up to see if there was anything they could do," Whitehead said. "I think everybody just stopped and couldn't believe it. ... Once they realized it was a helicopter crash, there wasn't going to be anybody alive. It's a scene I won't get out of mind."

Kelly Bailey, 32, who lives near the school, said she heard a helicopter circling and circling Thursday night, which she thought was odd because the choppers typically make a slow, steady approach to their landing spot.

Suddenly, "You just started hearing this WHA-WHA-WHA, and then it sounded like four, big bang-bang-bang-bangs, like that," Bailey said. "And then you heard this big, huge boom."

Bailey and her husband, Kenneth, rushed to the window, which looks out onto the school parking lot where the helicopter crashed.

"We get to the window and see this huge fireball," Kenneth Bailey, 33, said. "It was just a huge fireball over there."

After calling 911, the couple ran across U.S. 421 to see if they could help. But those hopes were dashed when they came upon the crash scene.

"It was just fire everywhere," Kenneth Bailey said. "There was nothing we could do, so we just left. It was too late."

The Baileys, who have a cleaning service, also recalled hearing other, smaller explosions, which they thought might be power transformers going out because the electricity went out in the area after they saw the fireball.

The power was out from about 11 p.m. Thursday until 3:30 p.m. Friday, Kelly Bailey said.

"It was a very surreal experience," Kenneth Bailey said,

"As you sat there and watched, we realized somebody just died," Kelly Bailey said.

A veteran pilot

The crew that died in Thursday's crash was Air Evac EMS' fourth team of three to die since 2007, according to the National Transportation Safety Board database. The last time a Air Evac EMS crew died in a helicopter crash was in 2010 at Walnut Grove, Ark., said company spokeswoman Julie Heavrin.

Air Evac Lifeteam President and CEO Seth Myers said in a news release: "We are devastated at this loss."

"These were members of our family. Our focus at this time is on providing support for the family and friends of these crew members," he said.

Air Evac Lifeteam has a safety program that includes the use of flight simulators for scenario-based training of pilots, the release said.

Sizemore, the pilot for the Kentucky crew, was an experienced pilot and had extensive training, according to friends. He previously flew and worked on helicopters in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era, Acciardo said.

"He enjoyed flying," Acciardo said. "That was his passion."

Laurel County Sheriff's Detective Daryl Zanet said he "always felt safe" when flying with Sizemore, who would fly a helicopter for that department on search and rescue missions or when looking for marijuana.

"He was a very competent pilot," Zanet said. "I didn't have any fear flying with him."

Sizemore is survived by his son and daughter, Justin and Jessica Sizemore, Finley said.

Dobbs had worked in the past as a paramedic for EMS teams in Clay County, Knox County and Laurel County and for another helicopter medical flight company, said his wife Emilee Dobbs.

The Dobbs had three sons — Jordan, 22, Hayden, 11, and Walker, 16 months.

"He was a wonderful husband and a wonderful father. He was one of the hardest-working men I've ever met. He loved being a paramedic and he loved his flying job," Dobbs said.

The Dobbs, who had known each other since they were 15, moved from Tennessee to London about two years ago, she said.

Dobbs said her husband was aware of the dangers associated with flying.

"He was never scared," she said.

The last time she saw him was on Thursday in Tennessee when he made the first of two flights for the day. Emilee Dobbs was visiting in Tennessee, and her husband was part of a team that had transported a patient to a hospital there. The last sight she had of her husband, Emilee Dobbs said, was him waving goodbye to her from a helicopter.

Finley said Jones is survived by his father, Gene Jones. Creech Funeral Home at Middlesboro will be in charge of those arrangements.

Funeral arrangements for Sizemore and Dobbs were incomplete Friday, Finley said.

Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep contributed to this story. Twitter: @hlpublicsafety

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