EagleMed exec. questioned about 4 fatal helicopter crashes in Okla. since 2010
The air medical transport company is under increased scrutiny from hospital officials about its safety record
By David Dishman
By McAlester News-Capital
MCALESTER, Okla. — The leader of an air medical transport company with four fatal crashes in Oklahoma in the last five years assured McAlester Regional Health Center officials this week that the helicopter service is safe.
EagleMed president Larry Bugg presented to the MRHC board of directors this week about why the hospital — and the community it serves — should retain faith in the company despite the fatal crashes, which includes two deadly helicopter crashes in southeast Oklahoma alone in less than two years.
The company is under increased scrutiny following a crash just west of Eufaula on March 12. Hospital Chief Executive Officer David Keith is evaluating the best option for the hospital moving forward regarding helicopter transport service of seriously injured patients, and Keith wanted to give Bugg a chance to share his company’s side of the issue with the board.
“Did my confidence in EagleMed lessen?” Keith said in an interview with the News-Capital. “No. Was my confidence in EagleMed strengthened? No. I will take this on a day-by-day, week-by-week approach, and watch them carefully. I want to treat them respectfully as a good partner, but I am also looking out for the benefit and welfare of this community. And, if I ever find or receive evidence that would diminish our confidence or ruin my confidence, I will take action.”
Bugg urged the board to understand what he described as a statistical anomaly of having two helicopter crashes out of the same base in such a short time. Those two crashes include the March 12 tragedy that killed pilot Matt Mathews and another fatal crash in Talihina in 2013.
Bugg said the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration “or no other regulatory body has ever come to the company (with a problem),” Bugg said. “We have never been fined or censured or in any way, shape, or form or fashion found at fault.”
Board members, as well as Keith, are taking a wait-and-see approach as the investigation into the cause of the most recent crash unfolds. Federal investigators with the NTSB said finding a cause of the March crash is expected to take months and could even take years.
“We’re a governance board,” Board Member Evans McBride said. “And I think our role is to make sure the vendor maintains the safety standard we would expect as a partner. Hopefully we will find that we don’t have a problem with our vendor, but you don’t get that information overnight.”
“I understand the NTSB is involved, and I know things are being reviewed and discussed,” Keith said. “But until I have some information and I see some evidence that there was malfeasance, or anything inappropriate on the part of EagleMed, I’m not going too be quick to act.”
Four EagleMed helicopters have crashed in Oklahoma since 2010. One crashed in Kingfisher on July 22, 2010; one in Oklahoma City on February 22, 2013; one in Talihina on June 11, 2013; and then there was the crash west of Eufaula. The Kingfisher accident is the only one of the four with a completed NTSB investigation. Preliminary information is available for both 2013 accidents, but as of publication the preliminary report has not been released for the March 12 accident.
In the first crash in Kingfisher, two people died when a pilot attempted to demonstrate how he would fly a helicopter during a “coyote hunt.” A final report indicated “the pilot’s impaired judgment, due to medications...led to an abrupt low-level maneuver and subsequent impact with trees and terrain.”
The report states the pilot had several medical conditions not reported to the FAA, the certificate holder or the operator.
The Oklahoma City crash killed two when an EagleMed-operated chopper crashed in a parking lot of a retirement home in Oklahoma City. A pilot and nurse were killed. In the Talihina accident, a McAlester-based chopper crashed during takeoff at Choctaw Indian Hospital Heliport in Talihina. A passenger was killed. When the helicopter was 175 feet west from the takeoff location, the left side of the rotor blade disk impacted a 41-foot tall metal light pole.
Both the Talihina accident and the crash that occurred west of Eufaula involved helicopters based out of McAlester. Remarkably, paramedic Ryan Setzkorn survived both of those crashes. Setzkorn accompanied Bugg to the board meeting and addressed a comment by board member Don Lewis about his willingness to return to the field after the first crash.
“I’m not near as eloquent as Larry (Bugg) is, and I don’t have near the college degrees he has, but I’m a pretty smart guy,” Setzkorn said. “If you guys (the board) thought for a second that I didn’t think this was a safe helicopter company, that I’d just get back into a helicopter after the first crash, you guys were just completely wrong. I did a lot of soul-searching and a lot of research, and the things that EagleMed are doing are far beyond what other services are doing and so I felt very confident getting back in that helicopter. You know I’ve had another crash, and I’m still wearing this uniform and I’m still very proud to wear this uniform. It’s safe to say I’ve got a lot of blood sweat and tears in this thing and my goal is to see this base succeed and see EagleMed succeed.”
McBride asked Bugg how many other fatal accidents have occurred since 2010 by other medical transportation companies in the state. Bugg did not know, but an initial investigation by the News-Capital indicates the answer is zero. The newspaper could find no reports by the NTSB about fatal accidents involving medical helicopters in the state of Oklahoma other than the four EagleMed helicopters. The reports listed on the ntsb.gov website date back to July 17, 1965.
EagleMed is safety certified by multiple significant air medical industry standards.
“There is no other entity that exists in the air medical world today that is SMS (Safety Management System) Active Conformance, that is ARGUS (ARGUS International) Platinum that is CAMTS (Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Services) across the entire organization,” Bugg said.
MRHC is maintaining air medical transport service while the matter is being resolved.
“I told them I expected to have an aircraft out there by April 15,” Keith said. “It’s still a service we have to provide, whether it’s this helicopter or another helicopter service, we need it out there. (In the meantime) if we need helicopter services there are other venues that will do it, but EagleMed will...redirect one of their helicopters, so we are not without helicopter service. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean one is not available.”
“People, humans, deserve the same access to critical care the folks that live in the city get, and this (air medical transportation) is a modality that allows for them to get that care,” Bugg said. “You do everything humanly possible (providing technology and training) but there’s still (sometimes) a bad outcome,” Bugg said.
©2015 the McAlester News-Capital (McAlester, Okla.)