MIAMI — Three people were killed when a helicopter on its way to retrieve a heart for transplant crashed in northern Florida, leaving the patient to wait for another organ to become available.
The helicopter crashed at 5:53 a.m. Monday, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
Bergen said no flight plan was filed for the helicopter, which was headed to a Gainesville hospital, Shands at the University of Florida.
Clay County Sheriff's Office spokesman Russ Burke told The Florida Times-Union the helicopter originally left the St. Augustine airport.
The helicopter was carrying heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla and procurement technician David Hines of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Sheriff's officials say the name of the pilot has not been released.
Mayo Clinic spokesman Layne Smith said the heart they were to pick up could not be used in another transplant because its viability expired. The patient is back on the waiting list for a new organ.
Kathy Giery, a spokeswoman for Shands' LifeQuest Organ Recovery Service, told The Gainesville Sun that finding a new match for that heart would have taken longer than the roughly four-hour window between the harvest and transplant operations.
"In a last-minute situation like this one, there is no time, actually, to regroup and start over," Giery said.
Bergen said the helicopter went down about 12 miles northeast of Palatka, which is about 40 miles east of Gainesville.
The wreckage, which was in remote, densely forested area, was spotted around noon Monday by another helicopter, Burke said. Debris was scattered around the crash site, which was hidden from the road by rows of pine trees.
Officials with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
The National Weather Service in Jacksonville reported 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."
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.