Durham County

4 people died in the Duke Life Flight crash. Here are their stories.

Pilot Jeff Burke poses for a photo with his daughter Isabelle and son Jason in front of a Duke Life Flight helicopter. Burke was one of four people who died Sept. 8 in a Life Flight crash.
Pilot Jeff Burke poses for a photo with his daughter Isabelle and son Jason in front of a Duke Life Flight helicopter. Burke was one of four people who died Sept. 8 in a Life Flight crash. Contributed

Lennard Bartlett Sr. wants to meet the family of the Duke Life Flight pilot whose helicopter crashed Sept. 8 with his wife, Mary, on board.

He wants to tell them how Jeff Burke had praised Mary’s spirit before the flight and how they had talked about their shared faith and Burke’s wish that more people would come together despite their differences, he said.

Burke said “it was a beautiful day for flying,” Bartlett said.

The pilot, flight nurses Kristopher Harrison and Crystal Sollinger, and their patient Mary Bartlett will be remembered Wednesday, Sept. 20, for their love, faith and service to others. All four died in the crash after leaving the Sentara Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City.

The memorial service from 1 to 2 p.m. in Duke Chapel will be followed by a special tribute outside. (Watch the live service at youtu.be/SYXrJRgoHe8)

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released Tuesday said one of the helicopter’s two engines showed signs of “overheating and lack of lubrication.” Witnesses reported seeing the helicopter trailing smoke and hearing a “popping noise” before it crashed in Perquimans County, about 160 miles east of Raleigh.

Bartlett, who was married to Mary for 47 years, wanted to join her on the Life Flight helicopter but there wasn’t room. They planned to meet at Duke, where she would be treated for complications from pancreatic cancer surgeries.

The crash “was like something was ripped out of my heart,” Bartlett said.

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They met through Mary’s older sister, reconnecting after he came home from the service, Bartlett said. She was just finishing nursing school, the former Army medic said, and encouraged him to continue his education.

“I immediately fell in love with her and with her beautiful smile,” Bartlett said.

Mary Bartlett
Mary Bartlett Bartlett Family Contributed

“Everybody loved her that met her. She liked to laugh and joke, and she loved to dance. She was very spiritual as well, and we had a lot of fun together,” he said. “She was straightforward with you, and she wouldn’t sugarcoat anything.”

Mary Bartlett, 70, was a retired Licensed Practical Nurse and an active member of Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church, Silver Leaf Temple 111 and the Elizabeth City PDR Council, her husband said.

She made him “a better father and a better husband,” Bartlett said, recalling the hours Mary spent caring for their three children and their friends, and in the kitchen with her granddaughters, teaching them how to cook. She would want them to keep living their lives, he said.

‘The ideal nurse’

Mary’s Duke team also shared a zest for life, according to their obituaries and memories posted online. They brought years of experience to jobs they loved, friends and family said.

Crystal Sollinger2
Crystal Sollinger Duke Life Flight Contributed

Sollinger, 47, was “the embodiment of the ideal nurse,” her family wrote in her obituary. The Wake County native earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Atlantic Christian College before beginning a 25-year career with Duke in 1992. She worked in Duke’s Cardiac Stepdown and Intensive Care units before being inspired by her aunt to become a flight nurse in 2002, the obituary said.

Sollinger met her husband Robert Sollinger in college 20 years ago, her obituary said. They shared “a love of family, friends, giant tuna fishing, Carolina sportfishers, diesel smoke, big hair, cars, bulldogs, fine wines, aviation, and travel.”

“She was loving and kind; adventurous but cautious; slow to anger but possessed a will of iron,” the obituary said. “She was not afraid of 10 foot seas or whatever weather was interfering with her patients and the amazing pilots she trusted to bring them safely back to base.”

Outdoorsman

Harrison, 44, also brought a long career in emergency medicine to the job. After graduating from N.C. State University in 1995 and Wake Tech in 1997, the Mount Olive native joined WakeMed and Cary EMS.

Kris Harrison
Kristopher Harrison Duke Life Flight Contributed

He had lived in Garner for the last 19 years and always had “a funny story to tell or a practical joke to pull,” his obituary said.

“As an avid sportsman and outdoorsman, there wasn’t much Kris did not enjoy or did not try,” it said. “He especially enjoyed Spartan races, mud runs, camping, hunting, all things NC State, and activities that included his daughters.”

‘A good, decent person’

Burke also was a dedicated family man, said the Rev. Joe Hester, of First Presbyterian Church in Smithfield. He loved teaching his children about the outdoors and imparting to them a love for the country he had as a young boy in rural Pennsylvania, his obituary said.

He was “just a good, decent person,” who was soft-spoken but funny, intelligent, calm and confident, Hester said.

“The memories that stand out to me is when we were gathered in the church, he was always with his family,” he said. “His daughter Isabelle, they were holding hands, and Jason, he was together and present with him, working in Cub Scouts, and with his wife Dina. He was always connected with those he loved, and he gave all of himself in that.”

Burke, 51, married his wife after 24 years in the military; they settled in Clayton in 2009. He joined the U.S. Air Force, serving around the world, and was accepted into the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Flight Program in 1994.

Later years took Burke to Bosnia for Operation Joint Forge, where he was handpicked to provide direct support to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Sarajevo. He was deployed twice for Operation Iraqi Freedom, flying in numerous combat operations.

He retired at the rank of chief warrant officer three and became a Life Flight Helicopter pilot for Air Methods Corp.

JB Webb of New York served with Burke through three years and two deployments. Burke knew how to bring out the best in his unit, Webb said, and was a good friend who pushed him to be an aviator. Burke’s death hit the MEDEVAC community hard, he added.

“He was kind and comforting when needed and willing to push when needed,” Webb said. “He was always there to talk no matter what time and wasn't too good to help with the little stuff that kept us doing our job the best we could.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

How to help

Friends have set up online fundraisers to help Kristopher Harrison’s and Jeff Burke’s families. You can help Harrison’s family at gofundme.com/for-kasey-harrison-her-daughters. Help Burke’s family at gofundme.com/for-dina-burke-and-her-children.

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