The cause of Tuesday night's air ambulance crash that killed three Steamboat Springs residents remained a mystery Thursday.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the crash but neither released information. Repeated calls to the NTSB were not returned.
The Yampa Valley Air Ambulance, a 1978 Beechcraft King Air E-90 turbo prop operated by Mountain Flight Service, crashed about 3.5 miles north of the Rawlins, Wyo. Municipal Airport. Pilot Tim Benway, 35, was killed. Also killed were air ambulance director and flight nurse Dave Linner, 36, and flight nurse Jennifer Wells, 30.
The sole survivor of the crash, Tim Baldwin, a 35-year-old emergency medical technician, remains in serious condition at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. Baldwin suffered broken bones and hypothermia, said Dwight France, the fixed-based operator at the Rawlins Airport.
Carbon County Sheriff Jerry Colson said the NTSB was at the site of the plane crash Thursday, but had no new information on the investigation.
Cindy Maddox, who owns Mountain Flight Service with her husband, Bob, anticipated the NTSB would finish its field investigation Thursday and that the agency would move the aircraft to Greeley for further inspection.
"It is not yet known what caused the crash," said Bob Maddox, co-owner of Mountain Flight Service.
The air ambulance was traveling to Rawlins to transport a patient from Carbon County Hospital to Wyoming Medical Center in Casper. It went down at about 9:40 p.m.
Baldwin called hospital
Baldwin used a cell phone to call Yampa Valley Medical Center shortly after the crash. For more than 90 minutes, he talked to rescuers, trying to lead them to the wrecked plane. He told them he could hear a train whistle and sirens, until his phone died. Rescue workers, using an emergency locator transmitter, found Baldwin some two hours after his phone died.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today has requested an audiotape of Baldwin's phone conversation with authorities. The tape was not available as of Thursday night.
The location of the crash indicated that Benway, who reportedly was attempting to make an instrument landing, was on the correct flight path, but for unknown reason was flying too low, France said. The crash site indicated it was almost in direct line with the runway. Snow tracks showed the plane skidded along the ground for several hundred feet, before coming to a stop about 100 feet from the top of the ridgeline, France said.
In an interview with authorities, Baldwin said nothing seemed wrong with the plane until it hit the ground. The rescue crews also did not find any ice on the airplane.
A report made close to the time the plane crashed indicated that the cloud ceiling was at 1,600 feet, visibility was at about 2.5 miles and wind was not much of a factor, France said.
In a press release, Yampa Valley Medical Center said it continues to struggle with the crash that took the lives of the three crew members. Hospital spokeswoman Mindy Fontaine said it is too early to speak about the air ambulance program at the hospital.
Yampa Valley Medical Center provides the medical personnel for the air ambulance flights. Mountain Flight Service is contracted to operate the air ambulance. Mountain Flight Service is based at Steamboat Springs Airport--Bob Adams Field.
Second crash in two years
This is the second crash in less than two years for the air ambulance. On March 19, 2003, the air ambulance crashed near Kremmling in an incident that was blamed on pilot error. The three people in that crash -- including Linner -- walked away with minor injuries. The pilot is no longer with Mountain Flight Service.
The 2003 crash grounded the air ambulance for two months until a replacement plane was acquired. The replacement plane, which was dedicated on May 17, 2003, is the one that crashed Tuesday.
Mountain Flight Service has suspended all operations this week to focus on the effects of Tuesday's accident, said Cindy Maddox. If the hospital has to fly someone out, it will page another air ambulance service.
"All of our attention is engaged in the accident," Cindy Maddox said. "We just want to focus on what is going on, on the families."
She said it is premature to discuss the future of the air ambulance. "We have not made any decisions nor had any discussions about that," she said.
Besides the air ambulance service, the company owns a similar Beechcraft King Air for its charter business and is the flight manager for two planes owned by private parties.