MIAMI – A surgeon and technician from a Mayo Clinic in Florida flying across the northern corner of the state to retrieve a heart for transplant died Monday in a helicopter crash that also killed the pilot, officials said.
The helicopter departed the clinic in Jacksonville around 5:45 a.m. but never arrived at the Gainesville hospital, Shands at University of Florida, about 60 miles to the southwest, said Kathy Barbour, a spokeswoman for Mayo, which is based in Rochester, Minn.
Killed were heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla, procurement technician David Hines and the pilot, whose name wasn't released.
The heart they were going to pick up could not be used in another transplant because its viability expired, and the patient who had been scheduled to receive it is waiting for a new organ, Mayo Clinic spokesman Layne Smith said.
The helicopter went down about 12 miles northeast of Palatka, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. The town is about 40 miles east of Gainesville and about 45 miles south of Jacksonville.
Clay County Sheriff's Office dispatcher Myron White confirmed the three dead but had no more information to release about the crash in the remote, densely forested area away from roads. The National Transportation Safety Board also was investigating.
The National Weather Service in Jacksonville reported that there was light fog with overcast conditions in the area but no rain.
"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. "We recognize the commitment transplant teams make every day in helping patients at Mayo Clinic and beyond. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families."
The wreckage was spotted around noon by another helicopter, said sheriff's Lt. Russ Burke. Debris was scattered around the crash site, which was hidden from the road by rows of pine trees.
FAA records show the Bell 206 helicopter is operated by SK Jets. The St. Augustine company released a statement: "The focus of our efforts at this time is to attend to the needs of our passengers, crew and their families and work with the NTSB and local public safety officials to determine the cause and extent of the accident."
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, Robb said.
"It's not usually used in donor flights," he 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.
"We've seen a number of instances where that engine simply failed," Robb said.
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.