Saturday, January 14, 2006
Steamboat Springs On Wednesday, about 100 hospital employees, rescue workers and people involved with the former Yampa Valley Air Ambulance gathered at the Doak Walker Care Center to remember three lives lost one year before.
Pilot Tim Benway, air ambulance director and flight nurse Dave Linner and flight nurse Jennifer Wells were killed Jan. 11, 2005, when the 1978 Beechcraft King Air E-90 air ambulance crashed within view of the runway near Rawlins, Wyo.
Only one person survived the crash, 36-year-old emergency medical technician Tim Baldwin.
One year later, he is still healing -- mentally, emotionally and physically. At Wednesday's memorial, he looked at the faces of the family members of Benway, Linner and Wells. He looked at the faces of all the friends who sat beside him in the hospital while he healed from a head injury, broken back, broken sternum and two broken legs, and he shared what he remembered and what he couldn't remember.
"I was emotional," Baldwin said. "I was just hoping I could get through it. That day was about Dave, Tim and Jennifer."
'There were no issues'
Baldwin spent the day of the crash working with Wells. She was new to the air ambulance crew. The flight to Rawlins was her second.
"We did some skills training that day -- things like chest decompressions, chest tubes and how a flight works," Baldwin said.
That night, Baldwin was watching movies with his friends when his pager went off.
Baldwin told his friends, "Looks like I'm going to Rawlins. I'll see you in six hours."
Linner picked him up, and they drove to Steamboat Springs Airport. It was snowing and partly cloudy, Baldwin said. "I could see a few stars."
"We asked (pilot Tim Benway) about the weather, and he said it looked good. There were no issues.
"I remember talking to Jennifer about what to expect and how we were going to run the call." Because Baldwin was training Wells on the flight, they sat in the back of the plane. "The last thing I remember was talking to Wells about what to expect in Rawlins."
The lights on the runway of the Rawlins Municipal Airport turned on in anticipation of the air ambulance's arrival. Fifteen minutes later, the lights went out without the plane landing. Rescue workers geared up for a search.
"If anything, I've learned you don't know what will happen at any moment," Baldwin said. "We were flying, and then we weren't flying."
Baldwin can't remember the plane crash. He can't remember calling Yampa Valley Medical Center to notify them that the plane had crashed. He can't remember staying on the phone for more than an hour and a half to lead rescuers to the crash site.
He spent the months after the crash trying to piece together what happened. He requested a copy of the 90-minute recording of his phone conversation with rescuers, part of which he played at Wednesday's memorial.
Listening to the tape was "really weird," he said. "Obviously I was injured. I couldn't move, and I couldn't see anything.
"I could hear snoring in the background. It was someone taking their last breaths. It lasted for about 20 minutes, then it disappeared."
When rescuers found Baldwin, he had lost a lot of blood, and his core body temperature was 88 degrees.
A return visit
His next memory is from three days later, when he woke up in Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. He asked whether anyone had made it, even though he knew the answer.
Baldwin was in the hospital for 16 days and two surgeries on his back and legs.
Back in Steamboat, he worked through the pain to walk on crutches, then one crutch, then a cane and now on his own.
In March, when Baldwin could walk again, he made a trip to the crash site with Linner's widow, Laurel Linner; Yampa Valley Air Ambulance operators Bob and Cindy Maddox; Baldwin's best friend, Soda Davison; Wells' husband, Adam Wells; and flight nurse Dean Zimmerman.
"It was hard," Baldwin said. They walked the wind-swept ground where the plane had been and found a small memorial someone from Rawlins had made. The anonymous mourner had poured concrete on the ground and etched the names of the deceased along with the date of the crash. A barrier of carefully placed rocks protected the memorial. "It was powerful," Baldwin said.
Body and mind
For his body, Baldwin goes to physical therapy, does yoga and sits in the hot springs. As his body heals, so does his mind.
Baldwin has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A therapist helps him deal with the flashbacks he gets from what he remembers and from the scenes he re-creates of what he cannot remember.
"It's all about learning to control the emotions," Baldwin said. "My therapist actually told me to try to schedule a time to grieve as a way to lessen the amount it affects me."
From rescuer to patient
To Baldwin, Steamboat lost more than three incredible people when the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance went down. They lost a great service to the community "at a cost to the patients," Baldwin said.
When his body is ready, Baldwin would like to return to work and would consider joining an air ambulance crew again.
"It might sound crazy," he said. "I miss the teamwork of it. When we go out, we call it a mission. The patients are sick, and 60 percent of the people we flew to Denver were from Steamboat. I knew a lot of them. I loved going to work."
When Baldwin started physical therapy, he found himself side by side with patients he had flown a month before.
"It was weird," Baldwin said. "Here were these people I had just been taking care of."
'We will never forget'
Two months after the crash, the owners of Mountain Flight Service, which operated the air ambulance, announced they no longer wanted to operate the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance.
Yampa Valley Medical Center has not resumed the service. Since then, the hospital has used Flight for Life and Air Life, Front Range-based medical flight services, to transport patients.
Early in the morning, hours before Wednesday's memorial at Doak Walker Care Center, Baldwin and about 10 of his closest friends hiked into the trees not far from Steamboat Ski Area and created a personal memorial to Benway, Linner and Wells. They hung Tibetan prayer flags in the trees and put up a sign with photos of the three who died. Next to their pictures was the simple statement "We Will Never Forget" and a Yampa Valley Air Ambulance lapel pin.