Crews dismantle radio tower

October 17, 2008 7:52:38 PM PDT
People living near the scene of a medical helicopter crash in Aurora were back in their homes on Friday night. On Thursday, they were asked to voluntarily leave because of concern a radio tower clipped by the helicopter Wednesday night might fall.

Four people died when a medical helicopter clipped one of the support wires.

On Friday night federal investigators said it does not appear there were any mechanical problems before the chopper went down.

The top one third of the radio tower involved in the crash was taken down Friday.

Workers removed the damaged portions of the radio tower piece by piece. Each section is 20 to 30 feet long.

Workers climbed to the very top of the 734-foot tower and used blow torches to dismantle the section that is damaged. The helicopter lowered cables and the workers attached the piece. The helicopter successfully removed it and workers moved to the next piece down.

The NTSB continues to investigate the crash site. Across the street, a small memorial has been set up for the victims. Concerned that the tower isn't 100% stable, authorities issued a voluntary evacuation of the neighborhood surrounding the tower on Thursday.

"Because the structural engineer had recommended that there was a possibility of that tower falling over and safety being our top priority, we did ask everybody in fact we recommended, that they leave their buildings," Dan Ferrelli, Aurora Police spokesperson.

Many residents said they believed the tower wouldnot fall over and decided to stay.

"It's pretty calm, last night, no wind. The way this design is, if it's going fall, it's pretty much going fall down. It's not going to tip over or anything. That's the way I look at it," said John Manix.

According to NTSB investigators, they have done a preliminary investigation of the wreckage. There is no indication that there were any problems with the helicopter before the crash. Officials say that it is early in the investigation. The NTSB also listened to the pilot talk on the radio before the crash and they said that there was no indication that he was having any problems.

Another big question is whether the lights on the radio tower were working at the time of the accident. Investigators do not have an answer yet.

Three crew members and 1-year-old girl died in that crash. The helicopter clipped a support wire for a radio tower.

"The aircraft was traveling -- initial information that we have -- it was traveling at an altitude of about 1,400 feet above sea level," said John Brannen, National Transportation Safety Board.

The crash killed all four people aboard -- 41-year-old paramedic Ronald Battiato of Peotone; 69-year-old pilot Delbert Waugh of Carmel, Indiana; and 31-year-old nurse William Mann of Chicago. They were taking one-year-old Kirstin Blockinger from a hospital in Sandwich to Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park.

There is now a small remembrance across the street from the cornfield where the medical transport carrying a 14-month-old baby girl and three men caring for her crashed.

Victims

Sixty-nine year-old Delbert Waugh was at the controls of the helicopter that was carrying one-year-old Kirstin Blockinger to Children's Memorial Hospital.

Friends of Waugh describe him as a dedicated pilot who was passionate about his job saving lives. He had been flying for the air angels for about three years. The choppers fly out of Clowe Airport in Bolingbrook transporting patients to hospitals throughout the Chicago area. The pilots say they are tight-knit group with a camaraderie similar to a firehouse. They say Mr. Waugh was an outstanding man - in and out of the helicopter.

Dell Waugh was a Purple Heart veteran who served in Vietnam. He survived several crashes while he was in the military. He had been flying with the Air Angels for the past three years.

The pilots comforted each other outside their office Thursday as word spread, trying to understand how an accident like this could have happened to a pilot with so much experience.

Based on the history of what that guy has done in the military, all the flights he's done for Air Angels and all the other flying he's done, it would surprise me if it was a pilot error," said John Jacobe, friend.

The airport manager says Waugh was very familiar with the tower that reportedly the helicopter crashed into and that he had flown that route hundreds of times.

"They take this route all the time. They are always transporting back and forth. They knew where the tower was. Now, I don't know -- there is always a strobe on top of the tower and certain types of lighting on the guide wires and things like that. I don't know if these were lit, not lit. I don't know," said Joe DePaulo, airport manager.

Also Thursday in the small farming town of Leland, a community is grieving the loss of 14-month-old Kirstin Blockinger. Her family has lived in Leland for about two years - where several members of her family serve in the volunteer Fire Department.

"The father, grandfather, and aunt are members of the volunteer fire department and they're a nice family, they'll do anything they can for you," said Don Hecathorn, Leland fire chief.

"It was devastating that we lost four people of our country but really devastating when you lose a child that small," said Ernie Petty, family friend.

The girl's father, Robbie Blockinger, serves in the Illinois Guard. At the time of the accident he was in Kansas training for his second tour of duty in Iraq. Family members say he came home this morning to be with friends and family. According to the sheriff here, the family might make a statement sometime Friday.

"We love Kirstin and celebrate her life, however short. We ask for privacy to mourn our loss at this time," said Steve Ogletree, Kirstin's grandfather.

The family of 31-year-old William Mann of Chicago, a nurse and member of the Air Angels flight crew, says they received the call about the death of their loved one at close to 3 a.m. from Air Angels. Their son had worked as a nurse for 10 years in Houston and in Chicago and was dedicated to saving lives.

Family members are trying to deal with the tragic loss at a time when they were all planning a vacation together. Arlette Mann says her son wanted to be an Air Angel since he was twelve years old and that he was a parent's dream.

Mrs. Mann says that her son was going for his second interview at a hospital because she had begged him to get out of being an Air Angel because of all the recent medical crashes.

Ronald Battiato, the paramedic killed in the crash, was the father of six who also worked as a firefighter.

His wife Michelle had their sixth child in May. Battiato's sister-in-law said he always put others first.

Battiato, 41, was a firefighter and paramedic for 20 years, working for about 10 years in his hometown. The fire chief in Peotone says he remembers Battiato as a very caring person who took his job seriously.

He left the town to take on two full-time jobs, one with the South Chicago Heights Fire Department, the other with Air Angels.

His family includes six children, ages 15 to five month, as well as many relatives, who are remembering him as a hero.

A trust has been set up in his memory:

In care of Elizabeth Collins
Ronald Battiato Memorial Fund
Suburban Bank and Trust
400 West Lake Street
Elmhurst, IL 60126
630-758-1300

There have been 12 crashes in the past 12 months in the U.S. involving medical transport helicopters, including one back in June. Six people died when two medical choppers crashed in mid-air over Flagstaff, Arizona. Both helicopters were headed to Flagstaff Medical Center. They were about a half mile away from that facility when they collided.

The most recent crash before Wednesday night's crash was outside of Washington DC. A helicopter carrying car accident victims crashed killing four out of the five people on board.

A spokesman for the NTSB says the agency will hold a public hearing on medical helicopter crashes sometime next year to gather more information about how the emergency helicopter services operate and how such accidents can be prevented.


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