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Plane Turned Suddenly Before Crash Investigators Say Air Ambulance Was Making Normal Approach

Wed., Jan. 10, 1996

A Pasco-based air ambulance was “dead on course” to land at foggy Spokane International Airport Monday night when it suddenly veered left, hit a telephone pole and crashed into an industrial building.

Federal investigator Jeff Guzzetti, who spent Tuesday sifting through the charred remains of the Aeromed crash that killed three, said there was no known reason yet why the pilot changed course.

“There was no communication from the pilot indicating he was having any problems,” said Guzzetti, who heads the investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The cause of that quick turn - and the crash - might not be known for months, he said.

Killed were David Brooks, the company’s co-owner and only pilot, registered nurse Vicki Collman, and the patient, a woman suffering heart problems. Her name has not been released by order of Spokane County Coroner Dexter Amend.

The patient was en route to Deaconess Medical Center from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Pasco.

Paramedic Harold Livingston Jr., suffered broken bones and burns to nearly half his body.

In the rear of the twin-engine Cessna 401 when it crashed, he crawled from the flaming wreckage and took refuge in the Ace Tank & Equipment Co. shop building.

Livingston made his way to a head-sized opening in the south side of the building, where his cries for help were heard by firefighters, said Airway Heights Fire Chief Toby Combs.

They cut through the metal siding with fire axes and pulled him to safety.

“I’d have to say he’s a pretty lucky guy,” Combs said of the rescue.

The 24-year-old survivor was initially treated at Sacred Heart Medical Center. He was transported Tuesday to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle - by air ambulance. His condition improved from critical to serious Tuesday night.

Fog was thickening at the Spokane airport Monday night as air ambulance approached the city. The runway was open, with visibility on the ground at about 3,500 feet, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

When visibility is less than 1,800 feet, the airport closes - which is what happened about 30 minutes after the crash.

Deciding whether to land in such conditions is up to the pilot, said David Adams, assistant air traffic manager at the Spokane tower.

But if Brooks decided suddenly to abort the landing, he broke the rules.

He didn’t inform the control tower of any plans to change course from Runway 3, on which he was cleared to land. If he decided to cancel the landing, published FAA rules for the runway say he should have stayed on course and climbed to 5,000 feet.

About a mile from the end of the runway, the plane suddenly veered left and began descending.

“It looked like it was coming in low and fast,” said witness Russell Ehr, who was returning to his West Plains home on McFarlane Road.

“It was coming in faster than you’d expect a plane that was landing. But it wasn’t teetering side to side or anything.”

The plane struck a telephone pole along Hayford Road, shearing off the top and dropping huge splinters onto the roadway. It crashed a few seconds later into the Ace Tank shop building, where it caught fire and ignited tanks of oxygen and acetylene, and natural gas from a line that fed ceiling heaters.

The building is about two miles down Hayford Road from the site of last Thursday’s Salair cargo plane crash, which destroyed a Convair 440. Both crew members survived that accident.

Guzzetti said he would be examining any possible links between the crashes, as well as a 1981 crash of a Cascade Airways commuter plane which killed seven. That flight, too, was attempting to land on Runway 3.

Aeromed, a fledgling air ambulance company that started operating out of the Tri-Cities last fall, may not survive the crash.

“We’re talking about a pretty large loss for the company,” said Greig Presnell, an Aeromed flight nurse. “We lost one of the primary investors, our only plane, our only pilot. We’ve lost 25 percent of our employees.”

The company started in Yakima in 1993. It moved to the Tri-Cities in hopes of attracting more business.

Co-owner Brooks, 36, was an enthusiastic investor who joined Aeromed six months ago after 13 years as a Marine Corps pilot, said Presnell. He had logged about 3,500 hours in the cockpit of different planes, was married and had three children.

Presnell described Brooks as a dependable, cautious pilot who refused to fly in treacherous weather.

“He turned down other patient transport opportunities within the last week or so based on the weather,” Presnell said. “The primary concern of David and everybody here was always, we won’t go unless we know we can do it in a safe manner.”

Collman, the Aeromed nurse killed in the crash, also worked in the intensive care unit at Kadlec Medical Center. Presnell described her as a “traveling nurse” who used her nursing skills to land jobs in various parts of the country.

Livingston joined Aeromed six months ago. He serves as a volunteer fireman in Benton County near Kennewick.

“It is…amazing to think Harold was the fortunate survivor of the kind of accident where usually no one survives,” said Jeff Ripley, a friend and fellow firefighter. “It’s an aweinspiring feeling.”

Damages at Ace Tank have not yet been assessed, said Bill Frers, Spokane branch manager. Most of the contents of the metal building were destroyed in the crash and resulting fire.

But Frers called it “a miracle” that the last of 15 workers left the complex a little more than an hour before the crash.

Surveying the twisted rubble, he added: “All this can be replaced.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Map of crash site/The Cessna 401

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