Helicopter Crashes Into Hospital Courtyard, Killing 2

By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - A helicopter en route to pick up a patient crashed and exploded Friday in a hospital courtyard, killing the pilot and a nurse and injuring a medic.

The crash left a trail of broken windows from the top 12th floor of a tower at University Hospitals.

The helicopter had lifted off the roof about 12:24 a.m. when it apparently veered back into the building, located in the University Circle neighborhood of museums, colleges and well-kept homes.

"I heard and felt the first explosion and saw the fire and couldn't believe it," said Stacy Fetzer, a nursing student who works at the hospital and lives nearby.

Pilot William R. Spence, 51, of Marshallville, and flight nurse Kelly Conti, 38, of Wickliffe, were killed and medic Joe Paoletta, 29, of Brecksville, was burned over 25 percent of his body. He was in serious condition at MetroHealth Medical Center.

Spence died of burns and smoke inhalation, according to Cuyahoga County Coroner Elizabeth K. Balraj, and Conti died of head, neck and pelvis injuries.

No one was hurt in the hospital, which had about 850 of its 947 beds filled. Patients and staff members rushed to look out the windows.

The hospital's emergency room was closed until 4 a.m. and 16 patients from different floors were evacuated as a precaution. No smoke or flames got inside the building.

Investigators from the State Highway Patrol, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration went to check the wreckage, which attracted a steady stream of onlookers.

NTSB investigator Leah Yeager said nothing had been ruled out as a possible cause. She said it might be nine months before findings are released.

The twin-engine BK117 helicopter was operated by Pittsburgh-based CJ Systems Aviation Group.

Lawrence J. Pietropaulo, executive vice president of CJ Systems, said the model had a good safety record. The 17-year-old helicopter had undergone all regularly scheduled maintenance, he said.

CJ Systems manages air medical services for about 60 hospitals and communities in nearly 20 states and transports about 37,000 patients a year.

Farah M. Walters, president of University Hospitals, said CJ Systems "has an outstanding safety record in the industry."

Spence had been with CJ Systems for only three months, but had years of experience with another medical evacuation service and had served in the Marines and Ohio National Guard, Pietropaulo said.

The Association of Air Medical Services, a trade group, said there were two accidents involving air evacuation aircraft in the nation last year, killing three people. A third 2001 accident seriously injured three and involved a similar BK117, the association said.

About 350 medical flight programs in the association transport about 350,000 patients a year, said Tom Judge, co-chairman of the safety committee.

"There's somewhere between four and six accidents on any given year," he said. "Some years we have no accidents.

"We are constantly looking at ways to improve safety."

CJ Systems is "extremely highly regarded" for its safety record, Judge said.

"Whatever happened, it had to be catastrophic," he said.

The helicopter was heading to LakeWest Hospital in suburban Willoughby to pick up a patient for transport to the Cleveland Clinic. The patient was taken by ambulance instead.

University Hospitals patient Kevin Chandler heard the crash from his ninth-floor room.

"I heard it sputter first, and it started losing altitude, then I heard 'Boom!,'" said Chandler, 37, of Cleveland, who ran outside into 20-degree weather with a coat over his pajamas and broken arms suffered in a motorcycle accident.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)