DENVER — Susan McGlew’s big brother was always the adventurous one.
He’s the one who moved out to the Wild West, rode the rapids, skied the slopes and left a comfortable hospital job to become a flight nurse on a medevac helicopter in Colorado.
McGlew stayed back on the family farm in Massachusetts. She still lives there, in the farmhouse where her dad grew up.
But Tuesday she mounted her own “adventure.” That meant taking a seat in the second row of a crowded Washington, D.C., auditorium so that dozens of high- powered federal aviation officials in business suits could see her and the picture of her sibling on her lapel.
Her brother, Bill Podmayer Jr., died in a medevac helicopter crash in Mancos on June 30, 2005 – just short of his 50th birthday.
Now, his little sister is using his story to help persuade Congress to enact flight safety legislation by Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo.
“It’s time to try and make a difference,” she said during a break, wiping away tears. “I think Bill would say, ‘Go for it.’ He was never a guy to sit home.”
A surge in accidents
McGlew is part of a close-knit group of helicopter-crash survivors and victim family members who are making their voices heard this week, as a special board of inquiry for the National Transportation Safety Board conducts four days of hearings on a jaw-dropping surge in fatal accidents involving emergency medical services helicopters.
In the past six years, there have been 85 accidents involving medical helicopters, resulting in 77 fatalities. Last year was the deadliest on record.
Aviation officials, industry insiders and even some advocates calling for safety legislation say they can’t be sure of the reasons. The board has called for four days of fact-finding testimony, and it’s pushing for action on urgent safety recommendations that have been sitting on the shelf for years.
“The safety board is concerned that these types of accidents will continue if a concerted effort is not made to improve the safety of medical flights,” board of inquiry chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
From her spot in the second row, McGlew got emotional at times. Every time the experts put a bar graph on the overhead projectors, she looked for the stats from “Bill’s year,” 2005, when he was one of the 11 real people behind the statistics.
The West beckoned
Podmayer grew up in Hatfield, Mass. He graduated early from high school and then blazed a trail to become the youngest man in the state to become a registered nurse.
But the West beckoned. He moved to Colorado, first landing in Leadville, so he could practice his vocation but also ski, go rafting and otherwise take advantage of the great outdoors.
“He lived large,” McGlew said.
He had a long career as a registered nurse, working in Western Slope hospitals and eventually settling in Durango. There, his friend, Paul Gibson, got him “bitten by the flight bug,” McGlew said.
His friend encouraged him to become a flight nurse, and in the last year of his life he did it full time.
The fateful day, June 30, 2005, began with a rescue mission. A Boy Scout had gone missing and was feared drowned. Podmayer was part of the aerial search until they spotted the boy’s body from overhead. It was too late to help.
Later that day, there was a call about a logger with a severe head injury, deep in the back country. The medical crew on the scene figured he was too fragile to be pulled out on bumpy, back-country roads.
As the helicopter approached the landing zone for the pickup, the engines cut out, and the craft plummeted to the ground. Podmayer, pilot Jim Saler and paramedic Scott Hyslop all died in the crash.
An investigative report blamed the crash on “a loss of engine power for undetermined reasons.”
Kinship with families
It’s unclear what measures, if any, could have prevented the crash at Mancos. But through the ordeal, Podmayer’s sister gained a kinship with families of other medical helicopter crash victims who have joined with Salazar, whose district includes the Durango area, to push for new safety legislation.
“My loss is my brother,” McGlew said. “I’ve met all these families. Their accident situations are all a little different. You all realize, you’re all in this together.”
“We’re not getting anything out of this,” her husband, Ed McGlew, said of the lobbying efforts. “There’s no financial gain having this equipment put into the (helicopters).”
His wife interrupted. “The benefit we’re getting is nobody going through what we’ve gone through,” Susan McGlew, 47, said while crying. “I always thought we’d get through life as a team.
Recent medical helicopter crashes
* June 30, 2005: All three members of a Durango emergency rescue crew are killed in a helicopter crash near Mancos en route to the site of a logging accident.
* Feb. 21, 2001: A St. Mary’s Hospital CareFlight helicopter crashes outside of Grand Junction during a maintenance flight. Pilot killed.
* Dec. 14, 1997: A Columbia AirLife medical helicopter crashes at Centennial Golf Course en route to an accident on Santa Fe Drive, killing a pilot and two nurses.
* July 9, 1994: A Flight for Life helicopter crashes near Buena Vista, killing a pilot and flight nurse.
The National Transportation Safety Board has launched a special board of inquiry on the safety of emergency medical helicopters after a spike in crash statistics in 2008. The issue is high on the board’s “Most Wanted List” of aviation safety recommendations, which call for:
* Conducting all flights carrying medical personnel in accordance with the same regulations used for commuter airliners.
* Developing and implementing flight-risk evaluation programs.
* Requiring formalized dispatch and flight-following procedures, including up-to-date weather info.
* Installing terrain-awareness and warning systems on all aircraft.
HELICOPTER SAFETY REFORMS
* Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., is leading the charge in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he’s about to reintroduce legislation.
* The legislation would: Require high-tech equipment – such as terrain-awareness warning systems and night-vision goggles, on medical helicopter flights; improve dispatch procedures; and impose stricter requirements for weather conditions before a flight.
Last year was the deadliest ever for emergency medical services helicopters nationwide.
2003: 19 accidents, 7 fatalities
2004: 13 accidents, 18 fatalities
2005: 15 accidents, 11 fatalities
2006: 13 accidents, 5 fatalities
2007: 11 accidents, 7 fatalities
2008: 13 accidents, 29 fatalities