KUSA - Flames erupted from a Flight for Life helicopter less than three seconds after it smashed to the ground July 3 in Frisco – a horrifying scene captured by a nearby surveillance camera.
The flames – clearly visible on the footage obtained by 9Wants To Know – spread quickly as aviation fuel poured from the downed chopper and the three men on board struggled to free themselves from the wreckage and the growing fire.
Each of those men ultimately escaped the inferno, but pilot Pat Mahany succumbed later that day to injuries suffered in the impact. Flight nurse Dave Repsher was burned over 90 percent of his body and remains in critical condition at University of Colorado Hospital.The flames – clearly visible on the footage obtained by 9Wants To Know – spread quickly as aviation fuel poured from the downed chopper and the three men on board struggled to free themselves from the wreckage and the growing fire.
The second flight nurse on board, Matthew Bowe, sustained less-serious injuries and was out of the hospital in a matter of days.
The helicopter, an Airbus AS350 B3e that went down a little more than 30 seconds after taking off from St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, was built in 2014 but was equipped with a fuel system certified by the FAA in 1977.
The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the crash is ongoing and may not be completed until sometime in 2016 at the earliest.
The video has never been publicly aired but it underscores questions raised by a four-month 9Wants To Know investigation, which found that thousands of helicopters currently in use are outfitted with fuel systems designed at least 21 years ago. Thousands of those helicopters have fuel systems designed in the 1970s – or earlier.
And helicopters with those antiquated fuel systems are much more likely to erupt in fire after a crash, the 9Wants To Know investigation found. The result: Since 1994 at least 78 people who would have otherwise survived helicopter crashes in the United States later succumbed to fire.
The video, obtained by 9Wants To Know investigator Chris Vanderveen, was captured by a security camera mounted on the side of the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco.
After extensive internal discussions, 9News decided Thursday not to air the video in its entirety but did broadcast several still images and short clips taken from the footage.
"While it is difficult to watch, the images we are sharing help tell the story," News Director Christy Moreno said. "We are sensitive to the families involved and our viewers. We also understand our responsibility as journalists to expose this problem and prevent others from losing their lives in such a tragic way."
The footage opens with a simple image of a nearly empty parking lot on the west side of the hospital, the mountains visible in the distance.
Less than six seconds in, the orange-and-yellow helicopter twists out of the sky and smashes to the ground, coming to rest on its right side on the blacktop.
Within three seconds of the impact, which broke the tail section free from the main cabin, flames are visible, licking out of the top of the chopper. Almost simultaneously a massive fuel leak can be seen – a widening pool spreading across the parking lot.
And then, roughly 25 seconds after the crash, the video shows the first images of Repsher, who was sitting in the back seat, appearing to kick a door out of the way and struggling to free himself from the wreckage, almost completely engulfed in fire. Repsher rolls on the ground in a desperate effort to put out the flames, then stands and runs out of view.
Meanwhile, Bowe and Mahany are still in the copter, now surrounded by an inferno roaring through the wreckage of the aircraft and a nearby motorhome and sending a thick plume of black smoke roiling into the summer sky.
Roughly a minute after the crash, Bowe emerges from what had been the left side of the helicopter as a bicyclist comes into view, attempting to help. Bowe falls to the ground, then pulls himself away from the fire, aided by the biker.
Then, about a minute and 20 seconds after the crash, Jimmy Rhodes, a CT technician at the hospital, rushes into view, spraying a fire extinguisher at the front of the helicopter where Mahany is still trapped. He reaches into the chopper several times while still spraying the extinguisher, trying to pull the pilot free.
Finally, Rhodes drops the fire extinguisher and pulls Mahany out, and the fatally injured pilot rolls himself away from the flames. By that point, roughly 1 minute and 45 seconds had passed since the impact.
The footage shows Rhodes exhausting the extinguisher as he tries to douse the fire on the pilot's uniform, then pulling off his own sweat jacket and swatting at the flames.
A pair of civil lawsuits have been filed in Texas and Colorado on behalf of Repsher and Bowe and two members of Mahany's family.
(© 2015 KUSA)