Community remembers pilot, 2 nurses killed in Rochelle medical helicopter crash

December 11, 2012 2:16:15 PM PST
A pilot who was a week away from retirement and two nurses died in a medical helicopter crash about 75 miles west of Chicago.

The helicopter was traveling from Rockford to Mendota to pick up a patient. According to the FAA, the aircraft was destroyed when it went down in a Lee County cornfield midway between the two cities at about 8:30 p.m. Monday.

According to hospital officials, the victims are identified as pilot Andy Olesen, 65, flight nurse Jim Dillow, R.N., 40, and flight nurse Karen Hollis, R.N., 48.

No patients were on board.

Pastor Ralph Kuespert with Bethlehem Lutheran Church counseled Olesen for six years. He says Olesen was just a week away from retirement.

"They had a retirement party that was planned for this weekend and also he and his wife were going to fly to Denmark for Christmas," said Kuespert, who was called to Olesen's home Monday night.

Olesen, the hospital says, was employed by Air Methods, the contracted provider of aircraft services.

"Andy was an experienced pilot when he began flying for Air Methods in 1994 and had been a pilot for REACT for about five years," according to Rockford Memorial news release.

Dillow is said to have joined Rockford Memorial Hospital in 1996. Hospital officials say he was an experienced critical care nurse and emergency room nurse and had more than 10 years of experience as a flight nurse.

Hollis, a mother of two, began her career at Rockford Memorial in 1986, according to the hospital, and worked as a critical care nurse. She held leadership positions as a clinical resource coordinator and a trauma nurse coordinator and had more than 10 years of experience as a flight nurse.

Rockford Memorial Hospital officials describe themselves as a very tight-knit family.

"Karen grew up here, Jim grew up here. Andy left and came back. We definitely have a whole in our hearts for our family members," said Ron Meadors, Rockford Memorial Hospital.

"They were all about saving and helping other people. To have them lost on a mission where there were going to help somebody in need of our services adds to that pain," said Rockford Health System CEO Gary Kaatz.

Earlier in the day Rockford Health System representatives released a statement which read, "Our hearts are heavy. We grieve the loss of three heroes who dedicated their careers to serving others."

Pieces of the medical helicopter could be seen all over the football-sized field Tuesday.

Michael Bernardin said he remembered the terrifying sounds from above his farmhouse when the crash happened.

"All of the sudden, I seen a red light come out of the sky, and [it] nose dove right into the ground out here. And I thought, 'Holy cow, there's something out there.'' So the wife and I got in the pickup and started looking for the helicopter," Bernadin said.

The "REACT" helicopter is Rockford Memorial Hospital's only aircraft, which usually transports high-risk patients in the region.

There was no word Tuesday on an official cause for the crash.

ABC7 is told that shortly after takeoff, the pilot communicated with the tower, told them he had encountered some sort of bad weather. He said he had already turned the chopper around and was heading back to the hospital, but air traffic control lost contact with the pilot about 10 minutes later.

The National Transportation Safety Board is heading up the investigation along with the FAA.

"My agency was beginning a search for that aircraft when a farmer in the area located wreckage of the aircraft in a field," said Lee County Sheriff John Varga. "No survivors at the crash site. Being that there was snow and darkness, we made sure the scene was secured."

Meanwhile, hospital officials said they already had several group sessions with hospital employees and would likely spend the rest of the Tuesday in similar sessions trying to help everyone cope with the loss.

"It's very difficult to accept that happening. And it's very difficult to be a pastor at those times. You do search for words," said Kuespert.


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