The future of medical choppers in Horry County

Investigators are confident they've recovered all of the wreckage / Graeme Moore

After an Omniflight owned helicopter crashed Friday night on its way back to Conway from Charleston, the Grand Strand will be without an Horry County based medical helicopter service temporarily. Emergency services officials say there is a back-up plan.

Carolina Lifecare has only been around for four years, and emergency services officials say the Grand Strand will temporarily go back to doing things the way they did before, which means relying on our neighbors for chopper services.

Horry County Fire Rescue Chief Garry Alderman says he's been told it'll be a week or two before Carolina Lifecare can get a back-up helicopter to its base in Conway.

He says in the meantime, Horry and Georgetown Counties will have to rely on chopper service from Medical University in Charleston and New Hanover Medical Center in Wilmington.

Alderman says, "Now for us to call a helicopter, there will have to be some type of delay in transport like an accident with entrapment, that we know it's going to take awhile to get the patient out."

Alderman says rescue crews won't delay the transport of someone from an accident, just to wait for a helicopter.

Instead, patients will be taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital and then transported by helicopter from there.

An official from Omniflight, Carolina Lifecare's parent company, says they will honor their service contract to the Grand Strand when they're sure that crews are ready to resume, but their focus right now is on the family of those who died in the crash.

The on-scene investigation into the crash is wrapping up, but there aren't many answers as to what caused the Carolina Lifecare chopper to go down.

The pilot was trying to divert to the Georgetown County Airport because of bad weather, investigators don't think mechanical malfunctions caused the crash.

A preliminary report is expected in about ten days, with a final report taking as long as a year.

The National Transportation Safety Board says 2008 was the deadliest year on record for emergency medical helicopters.

The NTSB recorded 8 fatal accidents in the U.S. last year, causing 29 deaths, up from two fatal accidents and seven deaths in 2007.

An NTSB study in 2006 found that medical helicopter crashes were 3 and a half times more likely to be fatal than non- EMS helicopter crashes.

Saturday's crash came just one day after the NTSB recommended that the FAA take a number of actions to improve medical helicopter safety, including: beefing up training for chopper pilots, including the use of flight simulators, requiring flight data recorders on all medical helicopters, and requiring pilots to use night vision goggles.

Related story on the victims

Related story on the investigation