The two survivors of Saturday night's helicopter crash agree: They owe their lives to the skill of pilot Brent F. Cowley, who was killed on impact.
During a press conference Sunday at LDS Hospital, the surviving crew members — flight nurse Denise Ward and paramedic Brian Allred — related horrific details of the crash.
It was the second deadly helicopter accident in five months for Life Flight, which before that had flown for 25 years without a fatality. The cause of the Jan. 10 crash that killed pilot Craig Bingham and paramedic Mario Guerrero, and seriously injured nurse Stein Rosqvist, continues to be under investigation, as is the latest incident.
The January crash happened in dense fog while the helicopter was responding to a freeway rollover, and it caused officials to ground Life Flight helicopter operations for eight days. LDS Hospital spokesman Jess Gomez said officials are not aware of any connection between the two tragic accidents.
On Saturday, Cowley and the others took off at the request of Salt Lake County Search and Rescue team members who were attending to a severely dehydrated hiker on Mount Olympus.
Rather than have the woman hike two or three hours to safety, they called Life Flight. The helicopter crew lifted her out by a hoist lift and took her to a search and rescue command center. After lifting off again, tragedy struck.
"There was a loud noise and immediately the helicopter started spinning," said Ward, who suffered scrapes and bruises. Cowley was doing all he could to regain control, she said, and she believes he did everything correctly.
The craft seemed to be coming down in a controlled spin. "I did hit my head a few times during the spin," she said. She was grateful she was wearing a helmet. She began trying to get into a shielded position to better protect herself but had not quite managed to when the helicopter hit.
It did not seem a huge impact, just a "little jolt," and she did not lose consciousness. She saw a hole and went outside. The hole was where the helicopter's front should have been.
"I remember the tail being busted and being separated away from the main body" of the helicopter, she said.
"It was very obvious that the pilot died on impact."
Ward grabbed the radio and called the control center, saying they needed help. The engines were still going, and she asked how to shut them off, as she feared they would cause an explosion.
"A lot of the impact was in the front of the aircraft," and she could not see the switches to turn off the engines. She worked to revive Allred, who was unconscious.
During Sunday's press conference, Allred said he felt "like I've been ran over by a Mac truck." His left arm was in a sling as he is recuperating from a dislocated elbow, scrapes on his arms and a blood clot in a leg. He said his helmet was badly damaged.
He blacked out when the helicopter hit. "The next thing I remember was Denise's voice, like an angel," asking if he was all right.
"The reason why we're here today and not seriously injured is because of the skills of Brent," Ward said. He was trying to regain control and bring the helicopter down in a soft impact, she said. "I owe my life to him."
"This was a very great man," Allred said.
"Brent is —" then he corrected himself — "or was an incredible pilot. . . . I truly believe that he is the reason why Denise and I are alive today."
The only remaining Life Flight helicopter is again grounded until the cause of the latest crash is determined. Three fixed-wing rescue aircraft continue in service.
Bill Butts, flight director for Intermountain Hospital Association, refused to confirm or deny that Saturday's crash occurred after a rotor came off. Witnesses on the ground said they saw something fly from the helicopter's tail shortly before it crashed near 5600 South and Wasatch Boulevard.
"It's under investigation, and that will be ongoing for some months to come," Butts said. Pressed to say whether the tail rotor came off, he said, "That's really speculation at this time."