Three killed in medical helicopter crash in northern Iowa

Online Staff Report

Less than one month after Rockford Health System REACT helicopter crew members Jim Dillow, Karen Hollis and Andy Olesen died in a Dec. 10 helicopter crash south of Rochelle, Ill., three others have perished in a similar crash in northern Iowa.

A medical helicopter crashed in a snowy field in northern Iowa shortly after departing Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa in Mason City, Iowa, at around 9 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 2. The helicopter was to pick up a patient in Emmetsburg, about 78 miles to the west. The patient was later transferred via ground transportation.

Among those killed in the crash were flight nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau, paramedic Russell Piehl and pilot Gene Grell.

According to reports, Lair-Langenbau had worked at the hospital for 15 years and Piehl for five years.

This is a very tragic time for Mercy North Iowa, the whole north Iowa community and really health care providers across north Iowa,” hospital president and chief executive Dan Varnum said at a news conference Jan. 3, describing Lair-Langenbau and Piehl as “caring, compassionate people … selfless health care workers who gave their lives to providing care for others.

Their colleagues are grieving their loss,” he added.

The cause of the crash is unknown, although investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were at the crash site in Ventura, Iowa, about 30 miles south of the Minnesota border. Officials had to use snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to reach the wreckage site.

Fred Buttrell, president of Dallas-based company Med Trans Air Medical Transport, which operated the helicopter, said in a Los Angeles Times report that the crash was “gut-wrenching.”

According to Buttrell, the Bell 407 helicopter involved in the crash was put into service in April 2011, had 955 hours in flight and had undergone required daily checks and maintenance.

Grell, the pilot, was also a highly-regarded, experienced pilot, according to reports. Grell reportedly worked seven-day, 12-hour shifts.

There is no indication it was unsafe to fly Jan. 2, and Buttrell said officials at the company were in communication with the helicopter during the flight. He said there was no indication of problems prior to the crash.

Buttrell said he joined the company seven years ago and this is the first accident he has experienced. However, there was a crash under different ownership in 2004.

Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa serves a 14-county area and makes 500 medical flights a year.

Similar to the Med Trans crew in Iowa, the crew of Rockford Health System’s REACT helicopter had been called to Mendota Community Hospital at around 7:30 p.m., Dec. 10, to pick up a critically ill patient. However, the crew reportedly encountered unspecified bad weather and had planned to turn back when it crashed in a field near Compton, Ill., at around 8:30 p.m. No patients were on board when the helicopter crashed.

Rockford Health System has established “The REACT Crew Memorial Fund” to support the families of the crew members who were lost in the accident Dec. 10.

Contributions to the fund will be accepted by the Rockford Memorial Development Foundation and provided to the families.

Contributions may be directed to: Rockford Memorial Development Foundation, 2400 N. Rockton Ave., Rockford, IL 61103; by calling (815) 971-4141; or by donating online at

Posted Jan. 3, 2013

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