Rescuers search sound for missing medical helicopter

Clearing skies allow an aerial inspection

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2007

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

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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.

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.

But the improved weather was expected to be short-lived.

Low clouds were predicted to return by Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. Rain and snow also was forecast, although the winds were expected to be far calmer than the 60 mph gusts of the previous days, said aviation meteorologist Victor Proton.

"It's fairly decent flying weather today," he said Wednesday.

McDowell was being flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center after developing a drug-resistant infection and low blood pressure following breast cancer surgery, said the Rev. Richard Harding, minister of the church attended by McDowell and her husband, Gary.

The couple moved to the small town a decade ago from Atlanta, where they ran a residential restoration business, Harding said. In Cordova, they run a lodge.

"Everyone is worried about her," Harding said of the local reaction to the missing aircraft. "A lot of people are praying for her."

Gary McDowell flew a commercial flight to Anchorage the night his wife headed there in the helicopter. He is trying to remain optimistic about his wife's fate, according to Harding.

"He said there are lots of supplies on the helicopter," the minister said.

Back in Georgia, relatives were anxiously awaiting word about the search.

"We're just really shocked. They're both awesome people," said niece Clarissa McDowell of Fayetteville, Ga.

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.

Two days later, workers at a Kenai Peninsula hospital where the helicopter was based were holding onto the hope that those on board would be found alive. Many participated in a prayer vigil held there, said Kris Eriksen, a spokeswoman for Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, 60 miles south of Anchorage.

"Maybe there will be a Christmas miracle," she said. "Maybe it'll be OK."

LifeGuard Alaska is an air ambulance service operated by Providence, which keeps the helicopter at the Soldotna hospital through an arrangement since so many flights originate from the region. The missing helicopter is among two leased from Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska, Inc., which provides the pilots and maintenance. Evergreen has referred calls to the hospital.

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