Colleagues hold out hope

Search continues for missing LifeGuard Alaska helicopter

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2007

Even though rescuers on Wednesday turned up no sign of a LifeGuard helicopter that went missing Monday evening, those who worked with the staff on board aren't giving up hope.

"They're family," said Jane Faulkner, a per diem nurse who works in Central Peninsula Hospital's emergency department. "These guys all live here, all three of them, so this hits us at home because these are people we see regularly."

Searchers returned to Prince William Sound under clearing skies Wednesday to continue looking for a medical helicopter that vanished as it transported a patient.

A thick cloud cover hampered efforts Tuesday to find the LifeGuard Alaska helicopter in the mountainous coastal terrain. The aircraft was heading from Cordova to an Anchorage hospital when it disappeared in blowing snow Monday evening.

The four people on board the Eurocopter BK 117 were identified as patient Gaye McDowell, 60, of Cordova; pilot Lance Brabham, 42, of Soldotna; flight nurse John Stumpff, 47, of Sterling, and paramedic Cameron Carter, 25, of Kenai.

Stumpff, Carter and Brabham are familiar faces in Faulkner's department. Not a day goes by when at least one of them comes into the emergency department to lend a hand, she says.

Stumpff began working at the hospital as a flight surgeon a little over a year ago, Faulkner said. When he's not on a helicopter, he can frequently be seen in the emergency or obstetrics department.

"He's always jumping in to do anything," Faulkner said, "He's very hard working, very serious. We had an OB who was going crazy the other day with two sets of twins and he said 'I'll go over there and see if they need help because I need to keep up my OB skills.' He's so dedicated to nursing and just really cares about his patient."

As a paramedic for both Central Emergency Services (CES) and LifeGuard, Faulkner said she's been watching Carter for years. When the ER gets busy, he helps out over there as well, she said.

Gary Hale, fire marshal for CES, said he still thinks Carter and his colleagues are out there. He said Carter has been a CES employee for approximately three years and is very skillful as an engineer and a paramedic.

"He was actually an awesome paramedic," he said. "Still is, because in my opinion they're still out there."

As the pilot for LifeGuard, Brabham is seen more often than some of Faulkner's regular coworkers. As the day pilot, she said, if he wasn't flying, Brabham would make his rounds through the hospital, maybe stop off at the cafeteria, helping out her fellow nurses.

Like Hale, Faulkner said she and her department aren't giving up hope either. All three men are skilled outdoorsmen, she said, if anyone can survive, it's them.

"I'm doing everything I can do to hold together so that I can take care of other patients," she said. "We haven't given up hope, none of us have given up hope."

With the cloud ceiling lifting, searchers on Wednesday were finally able to conduct an aerial inspection of the area around the aircraft's last known position. A Coast Guard cutter and fishing boats also remained on scene.

"We're anxious and we're excited for some breakthrough today," said McHugh Pierre, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He added that there have been some rumors that rescuers heard a signal or beacon from what could have been the helicopter, but they are unfounded.

Rescue workers are going to have a more difficult time of it tomorrow. John Stepetin, a National Weather Service specialist, said the forecast calls for snow in the morning and snow and rain in the afternoon in the western Prince William Sound area. Forecasters expect snow to accumulate at one to two inches with blowing snow making visibility difficult. Winds will also be blowing at 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 50, he said.

When asked if the weather would affect the search, Pierre said if bad weather sets in rescue workers won't be flying.

"We're very optimistic that the weather's going to benefit us and we'll be able to search the best we can," he said.

The helicopter crew last made contact with operators shortly after 5 p.m. Monday as they flew near Esther Island, about 75 miles southeast of Anchorage, according to officials with the Air National Guard, which was leading the search. The trip from Cordova to Anchorage is about 150 miles by air and usually takes about 90 minutes.

The hospital reported the aircraft overdue after the crew failed to check in for position updates.

Associated Press reporter Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report.

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