When Karen Mahany received the contents of her husband’s charred wallet, she noticed a small piece of paper that was unburned.
She read it, and she started crying.
It was a passage from scripture.
“No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for another,” it said. Karen considered it a sign.
Nine months after her husband died in a fiery Flight for Life crash in Frisco, Karen Mahany still has it. It’s a constant reminder of the character of the man she fell in love with long ago.
“He was fighting that aircraft all the way to the ground to try to put it in a place where his two crew members could survive,” she said. “His crew was his family.”
I WAS 20 MINUTES AWAY
Karen Mahany received the phone call shortly before 2 p.m. on July 3, 2015. Pat’s Flight for Life Airbus AS-350 had gone down shortly after takeoff from Summit Medical Center.
“I just so happened to be off work,” she said. “We were 20 minutes away.”
When she got to the hospital, staff was performing CPR on Pat.
“I begged him to come back to me,” she explained.
Not long after, staff noticed a pulse. It wasn’t strong.
So she started talking to her husband of twelve years.
“I wanted to thank him for choosing me and loving me,” she said.
She told him how proud his son, Ryan, was to be following in his footsteps as a helicopter pilot.
“I got to say goodbye to him, and that was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received to be there when the love of my life walked into Heaven,” she said.
Pat Mahany, a Vietnam veteran and one of the most loved members of Colorado’s Flight for Life operation, died shortly after that at the age of 64.
“I miss him, every day, all day. I always will until the day that I see him again,” she told 9Wants to Know reporter Chris Vanderveen.
SURVIVED THREE CRASHES IN VIETNAM
Pat Mahany was an affable Catholic from western New York whose father fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1970, Pat signed up for the Army.
By 1971, he was flying helicopters over the skies of Vietnam. He was shot down three times, and shot once.
When he came home, Karen said, Pat quietly dealt with some of the anti-war sentiment that had developed.
“At the airport in San Francisco, he was called a ‘baby killer,’” said Karen. “So whenever someone thanked him for his service, it meant the world to him. He remained ‘all in’ when it came to serving his country.”
In 1987, Pat joined Flight for Life in Colorado. Karen joined Flight for Life as a nurse in 1998.
Five years later, they were in love. They married each other at the Triple B Ranch in Woodland Park in 2003.
“He was the best,” she said. "The best pilot. The best husband. He loved the Broncos, loved to waterski, and loved his job. His crews always felt safe with him,” she said.
During their wedding ceremony, Pat walked down the aisle in a kilt with bagpipes playing Highland Cathedral in the background.
Twelve years later, the same tune played in the background as the town of Frisco came together to memorialize Pat’s life.
CRASH HIGHLIGHTS INABILITY OF FAA TO MAKE HELICOPTERS SAFER FOR EMS CREWS
Pat once told Karen she needed to be his voice if he ever died in a crash. It’s why she decided to talk with 9Wants to Know.
“If I don’t say anything, then I’m not going to be honoring him,” she said.
She said not too long before he died, they had a conversation about the nature of civilian helicopters.
“He said it was like flying on a gas can. If it goes down, it explodes,” she said.
RELATED LINK: FUELING THE FIRE INVESTIGATION
A recent investigation by 9Wants to Know found 85% of the civilian helicopters in the skies today do not have fuel systems that would pass the latest Federal Aviation Administration standards – standards that are now more than 20 years old.
Thousands of helicopters are at risk for fuel system ruptures after otherwise survivable crashes.
Despite the fact that Pat’s helicopter – an Airbus AS-350 B3e -- was about a year old, it had a fuel system in it that only needed to meet FAA standards in place when the AS-350 model was first certified in 1977.
Surveillance video of the crash exclusively obtained by 9Wants to Know shows fuel pouring out of the Flight for Life helicopter five seconds after the aircraft hit the hospital’s parking lot.
All three passengers – Pat Mahany and flight nurses Matt Bowe and Dave Repsher – survived the impact.
Within ten seconds, a fire was building and quickly surrounding all three within a wall of flames.
“Hands down, it’s every pilot’s nightmare to die that way,” said Karen.
Dave was first to exit the helicopter, but because his flight suit was coated in fuel he was covered in flames when he staggered away. He remains hospitalized to this day with burns over most of his body.
Matt was relatively fortunate. Fuel didn’t cover his flight suit. When he exited the helicopter, he wasn’t on fire. While he suffered extensive injuries, he was able to return to work months after the crash.
Pat spent the most time in the downed helicopter. A little less than two minutes after the crash, CT technician Jimmy Rhodes – a friend of Pat’s – approached the helicopter with a fire extinguisher and somehow managed to help get Pat out.
“Without Jimmy, Pat would have burned to death,” said Karen.
Pat suffered numerous internal injuries, most of which came as a result of the initial impact. While the fire didn’t kill him, an autopsy suggested it played a role in his death.
Karen remains upset about the lack of updated standards for helicopter fuel systems, but she is equally upset over the lack of updated safety standards for energy-absorbing seats. Better seats, she said, would have protected Pat upon impact and likely would have saved his life.
“He could have walked away from this, and Matt and Dave could have walked away uninjured,” she said.
She points the blame squarely at the FAA and its inability to require better safety standards for the country’s civilian helicopter fleet.
“Do you think the FAA is responsible for the death of Pat and for the burns Dave received?” Vanderveen asked.
“I do. I do,” she replied. “[Pat’s] crews should still have him flying.”
KAREN HEADS TO WASHINGTON D.C.
This week, Karen will go to Washington D.C. to try to convince members of Congress to push the FAA to update the standards for helicopter seats and fuel systems.
She’ll remind them the military adopted those same standards four decades ago.
“Why are Flight for Life crews not worthy of the same standards?” she asked. “This wasn’t an accident. This was a tragedy that the FAA and the air medical manufacturers let happen.”
The NTSB has yet to officially rule on the cause of the crash itself. A report may still be many months away.
By year’s end, the FAA is expected to issue findings on whether to update fuel system standards for new helicopters. If it happens, it will be the first time since 1994 the FAA has strengthened its requirements in the area.
Karen is adamant the NTSB not place the blame on Pat. So many colleagues have told her he was one of the best.
“They have said, if this can happen to Patrick Mahany, it could happen to any one of us,” she said.
She also wants the NTSB to document the efforts Pat made to keep that helicopter in the air. She knows he died trying to make sure his crew would live.
She also believes anyone in a position to change safety standards in the civilian helicopter industry should watch the surveillance video of Pat’s crash.
“People need to answer for that,” she said.
As for her life now, Karen said she still misses the love of her life every day.
“The person I was with him died along with him,” she said.
She’s now determined to create a new life reminding people Pat should still be here.