KERN COUNTY — Calling the tragedy a catastrophic loss, the CEO of American Ambulance in Fresno has confirmed the names of three men who died in the midst of transporting a critically ill patient last night when the SkyLife helicopter crashed after leaving Porterville; the name of the female patient they were transporting remains confidential and undisclosed at this time.
According to CEO Todd Valeri, the deceased include pilot Thomas Hampl, 49, a three-year employee of Rogers Helicopters. Flying with Hampl was flight nurse Mario Lopez, 42, a three-year employee of both SkyLife and American Ambulance. Also on board was flight paramedic Kyle Juarez, 37, a nine-year employee of American Ambulance with three years on the job for SkyLife. The helicopter, a Bell 407 owned by Rogers Helicopters and manufactured in 2000, was based in Visalia.
“They were heroes like their peers,” said an emotional Valeri, speaking at a press conference this morning. There were no known mechanical issues, Valeri added, citing the company’s aggressive maintenance and pilot training programs. Valeri said the work is inherently dangerous, and that “EMS crashes are more common than we’d like to see, but we’ve never had one where we’ve lost lives.”
The flight reportedly took off from Porterville Municipal Airport at 6:52 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 10, carrying a female patient in critical condition to Meadows Field Airport, where they were expected to transfer to San Joaquin Community Hospital in Bakersfield. However, as of 7:05 p.m. pilot Hampl was no longer communicating with air traffic controllers. News came in after 10 p.m. that the ship had crashed in an open field.
The coroner was on scene this morning. The debris-scattered area, described as 50 yards wide near Sherwood and Highway 65 in Kern County, will be investigated by the NTSA and the FFA. Reports are that fog was heavy in the area at the time of the crash. The cause of the accident is unknown at this time.
“We have not much in the way of facts, and it may take time in the investigation,” cautioned Valeri. This flight, like any other, went through a rigorous pre-flight check, the CEO confirmed.
When asked about the weather, he pointed out that any crew member has the authority to ground the aircraft should they feel unsafe, and that the crew was apparently collectively confident that the flight was safe on take-off. While the helicopter does not contain a black box device like some planes, part of the investigation will include careful study of the flight following information that was collected.
Last night was the company’s annual Christmas party, Valeri said, and two of those on board the fatal flight were not working their regular shifts, having traded with another nurse and paramedic who wanted to attend the party. Valeri said the company is a close family, and they are grieving this devastating news.
The photo above is of the same ship landing on Road 221 on Oct. 17 to transport a North Fork resident who suffered a heart attack.
Mountain area residents are used to seeing SkyLife helicopters as they respond to emergencies and transport the injured from local accidents to Valley hospitals. They also are well known for making their ships and crews available for mountain area events, educating the public about the vital service they perform.