One by one, the helicopters flew line-astern past Duke Chapel, saluting not only the four people who died in the Sept. 8 crash of a Duke Life Flight air ambulance, but the men and women of the service who now have to carry on without them.
The dozen-helicopter flyover concluded a Wednesday memorial in Duke Chapel for pilot Jeff Burke, flight nurses Kris Harrison and Crystal Sollinger, and patient Mary Bartlett, attended not only by Duke personnel, but EMS crews from across the state and the country.
Duke University Hospital President Kevin Sowers told the mourners a little about each of the fallen, closing with the praise Bartlett’s family had relayed to him for the Life Flight crew that was trying to bring her to Duke for cancer treatment.
“Although her family knows it was a sudden death, her family also knows she was prepared for her final journey,” he said. “And the family feels like our crew members were angels that came to escort their wife and mother to heaven. They said to us, it was a noble sacrifice.”
Wednesday’s service followed much the same protocols Duke established in 2000 after an earlier crash claimed Life Flight pilot John Holland. And as then, it signaled the program will soon resume normal flight operations.
After the ceremony, Sowers said pilots have already flown Duke’s remaining helicopter and a loaner craft from Life Flight’s operator, Air Methods Corp. What he termed “confidence flights” with the rest of the staff will begin on Thursday, and “we’ll be back up in the air by Monday.”
“Duke Life Flight begins a new day and new chapter tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock,” flight paramedic Steve Wilson told mourners during the Duke Chapel service.
The families that rely on the program and the Duke University Health System “would want our Life Flight team to move forward … and carry on, on the missions, the next patient transport, and to take care of each other,” said Wilson, his voice breaking momentarily.
Like all medical personnel at Duke, Life Flight’s crews “have a strong desire to save lives,” said Rene Borghese, the nurse who now serves as its program manager.
But “what sets this group apart is their desire to do so while putting themselves in harm’s way and without the safety net of an entire health care team,” she said. “They simply depend on each other.”
The Sept. 8 crash occurred 15 miles from Elizabeth City’s Sentara Albemarle Medical Center. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicated that investigators saw telltales of of potential mechanical problems with the Eurocopter EC145’s transmission and one of its engines, and said witnesses had told of seeing the craft trailing smoke shortly before it went down.
Poignantly, the EMS services that assembled Wednesday to honor the crew and their patient included a delegation from Perquimans County, the community where the crash occurred.
Also present were groups from North Carolina-based air-medical services like UNC Chapel Hill’s Carolina Air Care, and national ones like those of Vanderbilt University, Penn State University, the University of Maryland and the Medical University of South Carolina.
Sowers said Burke and Harrison were known within Life Flight for extending a helping hand to a colleague, a single mother with a young daughter.
“Helping people was natural for them,” he said. “They didn’t even have to think about it.”
Sollinger and Burke had worked together on one flight that wound up saving the life of an infant who’d been to the brink of death multiple times as they prepped for the trip to Duke. That baby is now 3 years old, and her family brought her to Sollinger’s memorial service earlier this week.
“She was the embodiment of the ideal nurse,” Sowers said.
Bartlett had also been a nurse, and had spent the early portion of her 30-year career caring for injured Vietnam veterans, he said.
Through her example, and the crew’s, “I think we all have a better understanding of the true meaning of faith, hope and love,” Sowers said.
Just before the concluding helicopter flyover, a Life Flight crewman delivered one final tribute to the crew and their patient.
“Until we meet again, fly high with the angels, and watch over us always,” he said. “We'll take it from here. End of watch 9/8, 2017.”