No sign of trouble before crash

The wreckage of a medical transport helicopter is seen south of Whitehall Road and south of the Georgetown County Airport on Saturday. The helicopter, which was damaged last year, crashed late Friday, killing all three crew members on board, authorities s

GEORGETOWN — Nothing indicates that a medical helicopter malfunctioned before it crashed in coastal South Carolina, killing all three crew members, a federal official said Sunday.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said all major portions of the aircraft were accounted for and that none of those parts showed anything was wrong before the helicopter went down Friday night.

The engine seemed to have been working at the time of impact and the recovered tail rotor showed no signs it failed, Sumwalt said.

'If there had been damage, it might indicate that it had frozen up in flight,' he said. 'But at this point, it is completely free-moving. So it would indicate that it was turning as it should have been at the time of the crash.'

The helicopter had just dropped off a patient at a hospital in Charleston and was flying to Conway, about 90 miles to the northeast, when it crashed about 11:30 p.m. in Georgetown County, said Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman.

Omniflight, a Texas-based company that operated the helicopter, identified the crew members killed as: pilot Patrick Walters, 45, of Murrells Inlet; flight nurse Diana Conner, 42, of Florence; and paramedic Randolph Claxton Dove, 39, of Bladenboro, N.C.

The helicopter went down about 20 to 30 feet off a logging road in the midst of some pine trees in a sparsely populated area. Sumwalt described the crash site as small.

The crash left a 3-foot crater in the soft ground. While all three rotor blades were recovered, one of the blades was buried about 2 feet.

Wreckage was laid on a couple of tarps adjacent to the crash site.

Sumwalt said the helicopter had flown between two intense thunderstorms and rain was falling when it crashed. He could not say if the conditions were a factor.

'We will certainly be looking at weather as it may have related to this accident,' he said. 'But we're looking at a lot of factors.'

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said Saturday that the pilot last radioed air traffic control at 11:05 p.m., saying the crew was about four miles from an airport and had it in sight.

Investigators probably will be able to finish their work in the next several days, Sumwalt said. The wreckage will be moved to a salvage facility, and officials will go over maintenance records and pilot training records. A preliminary report could be issued in the next 10 to 12 days, with all information available in about six months.

The crash occurred more than seven months after a four-day public hearing into the safety of air ambulance flights. One day before the crash, the NTSB issued 21 recommendations to help improve safety.

NTSB records show there were nine fatal helicopter ambulance accidents between December 2007 and October 2008, killing 35 people.

'We don't want to see any more accidents like this,' Sumwalt said.