Medical helicopter goes down

An ambulance helicopter racing to Icaria to pick up a seriously ill woman crashed four miles off the eastern Aegean island, with the apparent loss of its four-man crew, in the early hours yesterday. This, the third fatal helicopter accident involving the National First Aid Center (EKAB) in just over two years, raised urgent questions as to the causes of the crashes that have now killed 14 people. The government immediately suspended all night flights by EKAB’s three remaining Agusta A109 E helicopters. The center carries out between 2,000 and 2,500 medical airlifts annually, serving the residents of Greece’s isolated islands. Health Minister Costas Stefanis said that mercy flight procedures would be changed radically from October, when the contract with Helitalia, the Italian company which operates the EKAB’s helicopters, ends. The Defense Ministry, which conducted such flights from 1976 until 2000, and the coast guard will now be responsible for the emergency transfer of patients. «I express my deepest sorrow at today’s event. For all of us this is a tragic incident,» Stefanis said. «I assure you there will be a thorough investigation of the causes of the accident.» EKAB got its own helicopters, Agusta A109 Es operated by Helitalia, in 2000. The first to crash went down off Attica’s Cape Sounion on January 14, 2001, killing the four-member crew and a patient. That was blamed on the pilot’s underestimating the strength of a storm that the helicopter flew into. The second occurred on June 17, 2002, when a helicopter taking off with a patient from Anafi crashed into a nearby mountaintop, again killing all five aboard. Yesterday, helicopter SX-HDV, code-named Victor, crashed suddenly four miles off Icaria shortly after 00.15 a.m. after the island’s control tower and the pilot had exchanged messages saying they saw each other. An immediate sea and air search was ordered. The helicopter pilot, Efstratios Fotiadis, 49, was highly experienced and had a certificate as a flight trainer. Visibility was said to be good, with moderate wind. Initial suspicions focused on technical problems, although Helitalia stressed that the helicopter had only flown 647 hours, had recently undergone maintenance and had no record of malfunctions. On February 3, though, the aircraft had been forced to land on the island of Psarra and wait for a part of its oil pump to be changed. A spokesman for the Italian company said this was not a serious issue. Late yesterday, reports from Icaria said that a naval ship searching in the area where the helicopter went down had traced the fuselage with its sonar equipment. On board the helicopter, which was based on the island of Lesvos, apart from the pilot, were co-pilot Ilias Lendis, Dr Maged Safadi, and paramedic Ioannis Kouroulis. Kouroulis was on his very first EKAB flight after transferring from being an ambulance driver. The patient, 70-year-old Olympia Kotsoni, was taken by boat to the island of Samos and was in stable condition yesterday. Doctors on Icaria had decided to transfer her because she needed surgery and they did not have enough blood on the island. «It would have been better if I had died, instead of those young people,» the elderly woman sobbed to reporters. Opposition parties called for a full inquiry and blamed the government for the accident.