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Chopper crash kills 4; teen lives

NEAR SHEEP MOUNTAIN: The Era craft was flying a work crew to a telecommunications tower.





Published: April 17th, 2008 12:02 AM

Last Modified: April 17th, 2008 02:43 PM


WASILLA -- A young teenager, the lone survivor of a helicopter crash along the Glenn Highway, was recovering from his injuries in a hospital Wednesday, and families and state officials were grieving over the four lives lost when the aircraft went down in poor weather the day before.


The pilot and three state employees who planned to work on a state telecommunications site died in the crash. An official with the department that employed the three was at a loss to explain how a 14-year-old boy from Palmer was allowed on a work-related flight.


Allowing someone other than authorized employees, in this case a juvenile, on a state-chartered helicopter is unusual, said Kevin Brooks, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Administration.


"Typically, we're only dealing with our own employees and they're out there on a job," he said. "There's a lot of questions on everyone's minds about why he was there."


Alaska State Troopers identified the survivor as Quinn Ellington. He was at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in unstable condition Wednesday, according to state authorities. Ellington spent a night in bad weather that stymied attempts to locate the missing aircraft and was rescued around 8 a.m. Wednesday by Air National Guard pararescuemen. The troopers' Helo-1 flew the boy to the hospital near Palmer, where he arrived around 9 a.m. Wednesday.


Killed in the crash were Era Helicopters pilot Benoit Pin, 39, of Anchorage, and passengers Thomas E. Middleton, 46, of Anchorage, Joseph C. O'Donnell, 47, of Girdwood and Michael D. Seward, 37, of Palmer.


The three passengers, employees of the Department of Administration's Enterprise Technology Systems, were being ferried to a state telecommunications tower when the helicopter crashed near Sheep Mountain. They were en route to do maintenance on towers at Lion's Head and at Tahneta Pass, according to state officials.


The helicopter went down a mile southeast of the Glenn Highway at Mile 119, said Jim LaBelle of the National Transportation Safety Board.




The boy is an eighth-grader at Colony Middle School and was accompanying Seward, his stepfather, according to Catherine Esary, a spokeswoman for Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. The boy's father, Mike Ellington, declined comment on behalf of the family.


The Department of Administration issued a statement praising the men and the work they did on the telecommunications network, including the Alaska Land Mobile Radio System on which emergency responders rely.


Seward, a two-year department employee, improved "any project he touched," according to the department.


O'Donnell just two weeks ago transferred to the department from Ted Stevens International Airport. He had three young sons.


Middleton, a father who also had two years with the department, brought "top level knowledge of circuits and digital microwave to the team."


Middleton lived in Alaska for most of his life, his wife, Sandra Middleton, said Wednesday from the family's South Anchorage home. He had three children -- Andrew, Jennifer and Rachel -- and was dedicated to his church, she said.


Middleton had served 11 years in the Alaska National Guard and enjoyed playing guitar in his church band at Christ Community Church, she said.


"He loved the Lord, loved his family," she said. "It's a life-changer. He loved his family. We are what made his life."


Pin, 39, obtained his commercial pilot's license in May 2001, according to an online FAA database. A woman who answered his home phone Wednesday declined to comment and deferred questions to Era Helicopters.


Pin was a frequent competitor in nordic skiing events, winning the Eagle River Nordic Ski Club's Ski-the-Beach Race in February 2007, according to news reports at the time. Pin recently finished 34th out of 211 finishers in the Tour of Anchorage 50-kilometer freestyle skiing competition, finishing eighth in the men's 35-39 age group.


Era declined comment on Pin's history with the company.


"We all have suffered a loss from this terrible tragedy," stated Annette Kreitzer, Department of Administration commissioner. "These men dedicated themselves to keeping our communications systems working and were known for their love of life and family."


Gov. Sarah Palin issued this statement: "I know all Alaskans join me and Todd in extending our deepest sympathies to all who are touched by this tragedy. We will keep them in our thoughts and prayers during this painful time."




Era company president Neill Osborne, in a prepared statement, said: "We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of our pilot and three passengers and the injury to a fourth passenger in an accident that occurred on Tuesday evening involving an Era helicopter ..."


"We are working closely with the authorities and our agency partners to determine the cause of this unfortunate accident," Osborne stated. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family members and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured as they struggle to deal with this most unfortunate accident."


The company identified the helicopter as a Eurocopter AS350 B2 Astar.


Troopers reported their helicopter found the wreckage just before 8 a.m. Wednesday. An NTSB investigator arrived at the scene with troopers by mid-afternoon, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said.


Tuesday, bad weather had moved into the area between Anchorage and Glennallen.


Weather in and north of the Anchorage Bowl was "OK early on" Tuesday but worsened as snow began falling later in the day, said Tony Hall, a meteorologist and aviation weather specialist with the National Weather Service. A routine weather observation at Jonesville Mine, west of the crash site, described a nasty mix of rain and fog in the area Tuesday afternoon. Skies began to clear early Wednesday.




The Rescue Coordination Center picked up an emergency locator transmission signal at around noon Tuesday and launched the Gulkana Civil Air Patrol. The patrol aircraft got within a mile of the signal but bad weather turned it around, the Guard said.


The weather also turned back an HC-130 from the Guard's 211th Rescue Squadron and an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron, both with pararescuemen aboard, the Guard said. By evening, a Palmer-based Civil Air Patrol squadron sent four cadets and a commander to help in the search, said Pamela Speer, a patrol spokeswoman. The cadets, all under 18, waded through waist-deep snow and got within about a mile of the scene before turning around, Speer said.


"It was not good weather," said her son, 15-year-old Chad Speer, one of the cadets. "It was more of a blizzard."


Meanwhile, three pararescuemen loaded up snowmachines and drove north to search the area at night, with help from four volunteers. By morning, blowing snow gave way and the troopers' helicopter spotted the wreckage.






The boy is lucky to be alive..


RIP and my prayers to the families.

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