Medical helicopter carrying 2-month-old crashes west of Philadelphia, leaving 4 injured in a 'miracle' landing

By Ellie Rushing and Ximena Conde

PHILADELPHIA — A medical helicopter carrying a 2-month-old baby crashed Tuesday in a residential neighborhood in Drexel Hill, leaving the four passengers with non-life-threatening injuries thanks to the pilot’s “miracle” landing, officials said.

A LifeNet medevac helicopter transporting the baby girl to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia went down at 12:55 p.m. Eastern time, according to local authorities and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Flight transportation logs show the chopper — a Eurocopter EC135 — departed from Hagerstown, Maryland, at 10:29 a.m. It stopped at WellSpan Chambersburg Hospital in Chambersburg, Pennesylvania, before departing again for Philadelphia at 12:05 p.m.

About 45 minutes later, the aircraft began experiencing issues while flying over Route 1, said Upper Darby Township Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt.

The pilot searched for place to land, gliding lower and lower overhead for about a mile, before plummeting, said Tim Boyce, director of Delaware County’s Department of Emergency Services.

The unit fell and “slammed violently” into the street at Bloomfield Avenue and Burmont Road, then skidded into the side of Drexel Hill United Methodist Church, Boyce said.

The four passengers — who included the child patient, pilot, nurse and a medic — were able to crawl out of the helicopter, and did not suffer life-threatening injuries, authorities said.

The baby was taken to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia by ambulance and was in stable condition, officials said.

The pilot, who sustained more serious injuries, was transported to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, where he also was in stable condition.

The nurse and medic did not require medical attention.

“It really is just a miracle that there were no fatalities and that the pilot was able to control the helicopter,” said Monica Taylor, chair of the Delaware County Council, who was at the scene Tuesday, the region’s coldest day in three years.

“We have no information on how the crash occurred, but I will tell you that (the pilot) did a great job of landing that helicopter without taking any telephone poles down, damaging any structures, and again no loss of life,” said Derrick Sawyer, chief of Upper Darby Township Fire Department.

No bystanders were injured, and the church did not sustain any structural damage. Fuel had leaked from the plane into the street, and firefighters remained on scene cleaning it up. Officials said the surrounding roads would remain closed until the helicopter is removed.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash, an FAA spokesperson said.

Jerrell Saunders said he heard the sounds of trouble in the air before he actually saw the helicopter. As he walked to his car in the parking lot of the Drexel Hill apartment complex where he works, Saunders eyed the sputtering chopper flying lower and lower overhead.

“It was really low but it was flying,” he said. “In my head I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this jawn really about to crash.’”

Then, as Saunders, 28, drove along Burmont Road toward the hardware store, he and other drivers stopped in shock, watching as the copter careened to the ground.

“It bounced and then it started screeching,” Saunders said.

There were two loud bangs on the way down, he recalled — one when the smoking helicopter hit the ground, and another when it landed near the church. He was scared for the passengers, but felt reassured when he saw them climb out of the helicopter.

“That was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

Katie Spielman, 61, was watching the news in her Drexel Hill home Tuesday afternoon when she and her husband heard the loud sputtering outside.

“It sounded like just a very big engine that was kind of misfiring, like pop-pop-pop-pop,” Spielman said.

Ten minutes later, they saw the scene three blocks away from their home splashed across the television screen — a crumpled, smoking helicopter sprawled on the church lawn, near the typically quiet, two-lane road.

Spielman compared the pilot of the helicopter to Capt. Sully Sullenberger, who famously steered a passenger plane onto the Hudson River, avoiding New York City in 2009.

“It’s not even a huge yard at the church, not something you would see from above,” said Spielman, a former Washington, D.C., emergency room nurse. “And somehow, this guy was able to lower his (helicopter) ... it’s a miracle.”

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(Inquirer news researcher Ryan Briggs contributed to this story.)

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