ELKO, Nev. — Three crew members of a medical aircraft and a patient being transported to University Hospital in Salt Lake City died Friday when the plane crashed just after takeoff.
One of the crew members, Jake Shepherd, was a paramedic with Mountain West Ambulance, a service of the Tooele County Emergency Medical Services. Tooele police publicized the local loss via Twitter midday Saturday:
"We've learned that one of the paramedics killed in the American Medflight crash in Elko was one of our own community's heroes. We are deeply saddened at his loss, and the loss of all on board during the flight. Our thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues of these great people. We thank you for your service."
Nurse Tiffany Urresti, of Elko; pilot Yuji Irie, 63, originally of Las Vegas; and patient Edward Clohesey from Spring Creek, Nevada, also died in the crash.
The American Medflight air ambulance was taking Clohesey, a heart patient, to Salt Lake City for further treatment, according to Dr. Rodney Badger, chief of cardiology at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital in Elko. He said the plane went down about 9 p.m. in a parking lot across the highway from the airport.
"It's a terrible situation, tragic for the community, tragic for the flight crew," Badger said, adding that Clohesey had come to the emergency room a few hours earlier with an acute cardiac syndrome.
Badger had been treating him, but made the decision to transport Clohesey to University Hospital for open heart surgery — "something we're unable to do in Elko."
Clohesey, a gold miner, had suffered a heart attack in July and had worked closely with Badger to recover.
"He was really looking forward to retirement," Badger said of the patient. "My heart goes out to his family and friends."
Badger said the air transport program is something providers have been trying to get going in Elko — "a big, vibrant town" with about 50,000 people, some of whom need specialized treatment but wish to remain in Elko.
The program, offering limited cardiac care locally, has been up and running about six months.
"We're over 225 miles from the nearest hospital with advanced care," Badger said. "So part of our project has been to roll out cardiac programs to the more rural communities like Elko, Rock Springs, Vernal. Unfortunately, this ended in disaster."
Urresti, a nurse, worked with the program's new cath lab.
"She's one of our outstanding nurses in the emergency room," Badger said. "Really an outstanding nurse with advanced skills, compassionate, willing to get on the airplane and accompany the patient to Salt Lake."
It is unknown why the aircraft, a Piper PA 31 fixed-wing plane, crashed, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the accident. The FAA reported all four on board the plane died upon impact and in the resulting explosion.
The crew on each American Medflight excursion typically includes an experienced pilot, a flight nurse and paramedic, as well as the patient, according to the company's website.
"We are devastated by this event and wish we had answers to the many questions being asked at this time," said a statement from American Medflight President John Burruel. "As an air medical family, we are mourning the loss of our crew members and patient."
Burruel said the company's priority was now to "look after the well-being of the affected family members and their co-workers and to be responsive to their needs."
FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said nobody on the ground was hurt when the plane crashed.
"There was not a lot left of the aircraft," Elko Fire Chief Matt Griego said after the flames were extinguished.
A photograph published by the Elko Daily Free Press showed mostly burned wreckage on pavement in front of a line of vehicles in a parking lot. The wreckage included at least one charred pickup and the plane's tail was one of the few recognizable parts.
Hillary Walker, a manager at a grocery store about 200 yards from the crash, told the Las Vegas Review Journal that the crash caused parked vehicles to catch fire and then dozens of rounds of ammunition to go off.
Walker noted that said a number of vehicles in the parking lot for mine workers likely had ammunition in them. "It's hunting season out here," she said.
Burruel described Irie as a skilled aviator based in Ely who saved hundreds of lives during his career at American Medflight.
"He wanted to fly his entire life and never stopped in pursuit of his passion," the company said in a prepared statement. "Despite the face that Ely often experiences some of the most challenging weather conditions in the lower 48 states, Capt. Irie was always ready to fly patients to urban medical centers where they could receive life saving care. His skill as a pilot far exceeded even the best of aviators."
The company said it would release information about its other crew members once it received consent from their families.
Contributing: Andrew Adams, Associated Press