MASON CITY – A paramedic who had worked at Trinity Regional Medical Center in Fort Dodge from June 2006 to July 2010 is among three people who died when a medical helicopter crashed and burst into flames in a field in northern Iowa.
Russell Piehl, 48, along with a nurse and the helicopter pilot, was killed. No patient was on board the helicopter from Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa when it slammed into the ground just north of Ventura in Cerro Gordo County around 9 p.m. Wednesday.
The helicopter had been headed to Emmetsburg, about 80 miles west of Mason City, to pick up a patient when it crashed, hospital and other officials said.
Piehl was a very good paramedic, said Daphne Willwerth, Emergency Department manager at TRMC. Willwerth was his supervisor when Piehl worked at Trinity.
“He was a very nice man, very caring person,” Willwerth said. “Always upbeat, and willing to help. … Loved EMS.”
Piehl worked part-time in the emergency department and on the ambulance. Not only did he provide caring service to his patients, he also was a teacher at Trinity and elsewhere, Willwerth said.
“He taught classes for EMS, and that showed his love for EMS. He wanted to share his knowledge with others.”
Piehl began working with the Mason City helicopter crew for a while when still employed at Trinity, Willwerth said.
KarrieJo VanderPloeg, of rural Clear Lake, said her family was in the car about three miles from home when they saw a bright flash across the sky.
“It was probably from the initial crash because it was red that just lit up the sky. You knew something had happened. It was kind of like lightning, but it was red so you knew it was an explosion of some kind,” VanderPloeg said.
They drove to the site and saw the badly damaged helicopter in a farm field. Because her children were in the car, they didn’t get closer to investigate. Someone was walking around with a flashlight, likely someone who lived nearby.
Officials later said they used snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to reach the wreckage.
Butch Kozisek said he was startled by the sound of the helicopter flying so low and that he saw “one heck of an explosion” from his home less than a mile from the snowy crash site.
“Me and the wife were looking out the window and wondering what it was, and then the sound quit for about a second or two, and then just a big ball of fire at ground level,” Kozisek said.
Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa in Mason City identified its two employees, nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau and Piehl, who was on board as a paramedic.
Hospital president and CEO Dan Varnum said that while the two “fulfilled significant duties, they played a greater role as our neighbors and friends.”
The company that owned the helicopter, Med-Trans Air Medical Transport, of Lewisville, Texas, identified the pilot as Gene Grell.
Med-Trans Air CEO Fred Buttrell said at a news conference that Grell didn’t live in Mason City but had been looking to move there for his job. He did not say where Grell lived.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the crash.
Buttrell said the helicopter was equipped with a satellite tracking system that monitored its position and other information instead of the traditional onboard black box. He said it was in contact with the company’s communications center during the flight and there was no emergency communication before it crashed.
He said it was not clear whether weather played a role in the crash. It was overcast, about 27 degrees with northwest wind of about 10 to 15 miles per hour at the time of the crash, according to National Weather Service records.
Buttrell said the pilots on medical flights are in command and make decisions about whether to fly.
“If anybody’s not comfortable with accepting the mission we would not do it,” he said.
The helicopter was in compliance with routine maintenance and daily inspections, he said.
Buttrell said Med-Trans has had no accidents since he joined it in 2006. Under previous ownership and a different company name, there was an accident in 2004, he said.
“We work on this daily so this is really tough for us,” he said. “We’re obviously going to go through and understand what unfolded but we’ve been very blessed to be a very safe organization.”