MIAMI (AP) — Three people were killed when a helicopter on its way to retrieve a heart for transplant crashed in northern Florida, leaving the patient to wait for another organ to become available.
No flight plan was filed for the helicopter, which was headed to Shands hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville when it crashed early Monday morning, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
The helicopter was carrying heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla and procurement technician David Hines of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. The name of the pilot has not been released.
Mayo Clinic spokesman Layne Smith said the patient who had been scheduled to receive the heart is back on the waiting list for a new organ.
Kathy Giery, a spokeswoman for Shands' LifeQuest Organ Recovery Service, said Tuesday that the heart was not recovered from the donor. It was too far along in the process of lining up organ recipients and surgical teams to get the heart to another patient, Giery said.
Giery could not say whether any other organs were recovered and donated because of privacy laws, but she said the heart not being used did not affect the other recovery personnel already in place.
The heart would have been the first organ recovered, Giery said.
Bergen said the helicopter went down about 12 miles northeast of Palatka, which is about 40 miles east of Gainesville.
Federal and local investigators were on the scene Tuesday to look through the wreckage, Clay County Sheriff's Office Lt. Russ Burke said Tuesday.
The site was about a mile off a dirt road in a densely wooded area, and the crash ignited a fire that burned about 10 acres of woods, Burke said.
The wreckage was discovered around noon Monday, and the aircraft was not in one piece, he said.
"It was well hidden in the woods," Burke said. "If it hadn't set the woods on fire it might have been awhile before anyone spotted it."
The bodies of the pilot and the Mayo Clinic employees have been recovered, he said.
"As we mourn this tragic event, we will remember the selfless and intense dedication they brought to making a difference in the lives of our patients," John Noseworthy, Mayo Clinic president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
The National Weather Service in Jacksonville reported there was light fog with overcast conditions in the area but no rain when the plane went down.
FAA records show the Bell 206 helicopter is operated by SK Jets. The St. Augustine company said it was working with the NTSB and local officials to determine the cause and extent of the crash.
Gary Robb, a Kansas City aviation attorney specializing in helicopter safety, said SK Jets is known as a careful and safe operator in the industry. The small, lightweight craft has low weight and speed capabilities and is primarily used by traffic reporters or police departments — not for donor flights, Robb said.
"If you're on a mission where time is sensitive, why use an engine that is low performance?" Robb said, adding that the helicopter has a cramped cabin.
An NTSB investigator will scour the crash site for clues and look into the pilot's experience and any factors that might have impaired the pilot, any environmental factors such as birds or low visibility that may have contributed to the crash, and any mechanical problems with the helicopter, he said.
The Bell 206 usually has an older engine no longer installed in new models, Robb said. He said there have been cases where the engine simply failed.
The crash and others like it illustrate the delicate nature of transporting organs.
In 1990, a surgeon and an assistant flying to pick up a donor heart for a patient were killed in a plane crash in New Mexico. And in 2007, a twin-engine plane carrying a team of surgeons and technicians — along with a set of lungs on ice being brought to a patient already prepped for surgery — crashed into the choppy waters of Lake Michigan. Six were killed.
Doctors ultimately got another set of donor lungs that were transplanted into the patient.