Durham County

Medical examiners issue report on causes of deaths in Duke Life Flight crash

Autopsies of three victims of September’s Duke Life Flight crash are complete and indicate they died from “blunt force injuries” rather than the fire that consumed part of the wreckage.
Autopsies of three victims of September’s Duke Life Flight crash are complete and indicate they died from “blunt force injuries” rather than the fire that consumed part of the wreckage. ABC11

Crew members and a passenger on the Duke Life Flight helicopter that crashed in eastern North Carolina on Sept. 8 most likely died from “blunt force injuries,” not the fire that consumed part of the wreckage, state medical examiners say.

The crew’s two flight nurses, Kristopher Harrison and Crystal Sollinger, and their patient, Mary Bartlett, all suffered bone fractures and organ damage that in each case would have been “rapidly fatal,” according to autopsy reports signed by Jonathan Privette, a Greenville-based pathologist.

While they also suffered burns, those injuries “most likely” happened after they’d died, the reports said.

The autopsy findings are the latest information to surface about the Life Flight crash, which also killed pilot Jeffrey Burke.

Findings in Burke’s case are “not complete,” said Cobey Culton, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Life Flight helicopter went down in Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East, in Perquimans County about 15 miles from the Sentara Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City. The crew was trying to bring Bartlett from the Elizabeth City hospital for treatment at Duke University Hospital.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicates that tracking data last recorded the aircraft as being about 1,200 feet above sea level, well above the charted 515-foot elevation of the power plant’s windmills. It had at that point turned south, away from the compass heading that would have led it to Duke.

Witnesses reported seeing the helicopter trailing smoke and hearing a “popping noise” from it. But one witness thought Burke remained in control of the craft and told investigators its rotors were still turning, the NTSB said in September.

The same report said one of the helicopter’s two engines showed signs of “overheating and lack of lubrication,” along with a badly worn bearing. The transmission, a separate assembly, “could not be rotated by hand.”

All that has fueled speculation that the Eurocopter EC145 suffered some sort of in-flight mechanical failure – speculation reinforced in November when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a non-binding bulletin asking EC145 operators to keep an eye out for blockages in an oil drain. The agency cited the Life Flight crash and another helicopter’s non-fatal emergency landing in January as reasons for the request.

Lawyers for Harrison’s and Bartlett’s families have since sued the companies that manufactured the helicopter’s airframe and engines, along with Burke’s estate and the Air Methods Corp., the company that supplies Life Flight’s pilots and mechanics under contract to the Duke University Health System.

They question whether Burke failed to perform an emergency maneuver that in theory could have brought the craft down safely even with a failed engine. But a lawyer for Sollinger’s family, Jim Crouse, said this month it’s too soon to tell yet whether the helicopter’s mechanical condition would even have allowed that.

The autopsy reports – compiled at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine – tracked with the possibility of a very heavy ground impact. Harrison, Sollinger and Bartlett all had spinal and skull fractures, among other injuries.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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