On a crystal clear evening, Michael Eccard and Ryan Duke climbed into a medical helicopter for what they thought would be a routine flight to pick up a patient. It was a flight that began like many they had shared.
Good friends and flight nurses, Eccard and Duke joked as they checked the medical gear and belted in before the chopper, piloted by 10-year EagleMed pilot veteran Al Harrison, lifted into the sky at 7:13 p.m.
But just over 10 minutes into the flight, the helicopter began spinning, nose-up, out of control. Eccard, unbuckled to do in-flight preparation, slammed helmet-first through the front windshield as the chopper crashed into an open field a few miles southeast of Kingfisher and burst into flames.
"It was extremely chaotic. Just really noisy," Eccard said, in his first published comments about the crash since that evening of July 22. Flames poured from the destroyed chopper and 23 mph winds fanned the fire through the grassy field toward Eccard, the sole survivor.
As a paramedic flight nurse, Eccard knew he was severely injured. He could barely breathe and realized that he had a collapsed lung that could kill him, probably a broken back and numerous other broken bones. "I tried not to look at the flames. ... I knew the helicopter was there and my partner and my pilot were there as well," Eccard said.
Duke and Harrison died in the helicopter crash. With his wife and two young children in mind, Eccard knew he had to concentrate on surviving at least long enough to say goodbye. He tore off his flight helmet and slowly, painfully, breathlessly, pushed with his unbroken right leg, scooting on his back until he reached a fence 52 yards away. He awkwardly threw his arm over the fence to increase the chances of being seen by emergency rescue workers in the waning light. The field turned eerily quiet.
"It was surreal," Eccard said, while sitting in a comfortable chair in his Edmond home. Propped against the fence, he pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his teal green and black flight suit and called 911. Then he called his wife, Heather, a registered nurse and former flight paramedic, who was at that moment visiting a fast-food restaurant. He just got her voice mail. He hung up. Tried again. This time she picked up. Trying to squeeze a few breaths from his injured lung, he tried to say everything at once. "I love you," he tried to say. All she could make out was, "Heather! Heather! Heather! I've been in a crash!" "What?" she asked.
By then, Eccard saw the welcome face of one of the paramedics that he had trained. He quickly told Eccard's wife to meet them at OU Medical Center and then stuck a needle in Eccard's chest to reinflate the lung. Eccard said the paramedic saved his life. Meanwhile, the patient the crew had planned to pick up was taken to Integris Baptist Medical Center.
The National Transportation Safety Board narrative doesn't include information about the conclusions and probable cause of the crash. Eccard declined to comment on what may have caused the crash of the 1998 Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter. Eccard said he prefers not to talk about details of the crash while the investigation continues.
Physical therapy allowed Eccard to get out of a wheelchair last month so that he can walk slowly now with a cane. His left foot has been operated on several times to repair numerous breaks and is still in a cast. He broke his back. All the ribs on his right side, plus his collarbone, were broken. His right arm is in a sling after shoulder surgery and, although he's had about 10 surgeries, he figures he faces more surgery.
He has nightmares about the crash and thinks frequently of Duke, 35, and Harrison, 56. "Ryan was an amazing clinician and great friend. Al always had a smile on his face and was a fantastic person to fly with," Eccard said. "They were both great at their jobs." He said he couldn't make an emotional and physical recovery without support from his wife, their children, Josh, 4, and Abby, 1, family, friends and health professionals. He said he is driven by knowing that Duke and Harrison wouldn't want him to sit around feeling sorry for himself.
To help memorialize Duke and Harrison, as well as other flight medical crews killed while on air medical missions, Eccard has become an honorary officer of the Air Medical Memorial. A June 2012 opening date is planned for the memorial outside Denver. The memorial is designed to recognize more than 340 crew members who have died in the line of duty, as well as future crew members.
Eccard said that while he was still in the hospital, Jonathan Godfrey, a flight nurse who was the lone survivor of a 2005 helicopter crash in the Potomac River, contacted his wife. Godfrey is a co-founder of Survivor's Network for Air and Surface Medical Transport, which is associated with the Air Medical Memorial. He said he was thankful to find someone who had been through a helicopter crash, understood his pain and had returned to medical flight service.
Eccard said, though doctors think it will be at least a year before he can return to work, EagleMed has assured him a job doing whatever he prefers. But will he ever fly again? "I don't know," he said. "The industry as a whole is a safe industry and helicopters are beautiful machines. It was certainly a passion for me. It was what I've wanted to do since I was in EMT (emergency medical technician) school when I was 18."
With Christmas - his 35th birthday - just days away, Eccard said he's thankful. "Every day to me is Christmas since July 22," he said. "Every day is Christmas. Every day is special."