South Dakota remembers 1998 Sioux Valley helicopter crash
By STU WHITNEY | Argus Leader | Published: September 1, 2018
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Kim Soyer was in good spirits on Aug, 20, 1998, soothed by scenes of late summer with a welcome weekend in sight.
Sitting on the back deck of a house in central Sioux Falls, the Sioux Valley Hospital lab technician shared stories and laughs with a pair of friends who were moving away, making the memories bittersweet.
When they heard the churning of helicopter blades above, Soyer knew it was the Trauma One chopper carrying several of her colleagues from Sioux Valley — pilot Merton "Tiff" Tiffany, paramedic Shannon Nolte and nurse Melissa "Missy" Wittry.
"I had seen them earlier in the day, so I knew who was on board," said Soyer, who now works in security at the Sioux Falls VA Medical Center. "It was a pretty common sight."
The crew was headed to Spencer, Iowa, to pick up a patient, one of 15,000 flights that the hospital's air ambulance teams had flown since starting the helicopter service in 1986.
As Soyer would later relate in a 20th anniversary poem about that fateful night, her reaction to seeing the chopper was a familiar sense of respect and admiration, combined with concern for the emergency patient.
"These aren't sightseeing adventures," said Kelby Krabbenhoft, Sioux Valley's CEO at the time. "They are meticulously planned, cautiously considered."
One might think it took a tragedy — inarguably the darkest day in the history of Sanford Health — to reveal the heroism of air ambulance teams, who face inherent aviation risks while caring for the most critically injured of patients under challenging conditions.
But for Soyer and others who worked in and around the trauma unit, that understanding was well-established by the time the chopper flew past a gathering of old friends on a late-summer night, only to be reinforced in the most human terms imaginable.
"We raised our glasses high and offered a toast as they went by," Soyer told the Argus Leader . "And we wished them a good trip."
Randy Bury had seen his share of close calls. As the director of Sioux Valley's intensive-air program for all 12 years of its helicopter service, his conversations with dispatchers had teetered on the edge of emergency without ever passing over into despair.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, it turns out that there's a good reason that they lost contact with the helicopter," said Bury, now chief administrative officer at Sanford Health. "The radio's not working, or there was an unscheduled landing to check on something as a precaution. Most of the time it's just a false alarm.
"I remember that night though, I got a call from the communication center, and there was a different tone in the dispatcher's voice. The message was, 'Hey, Randy, I think this one's more serious.'"
His mind went immediately to Merton Tiffany, the 50-year-old combat veteran known for his meticulous approach to flight missions, dating back to his time as a pilot and flight instructor in the Army.
"He flew Apache helicopters while based in Europe, and they had complicated routes they had to fly on international borders," said Bury. "The story went that Tiff was the only one who had those routes memorized, because he was a perfectionist. I knew that if there was any way to get our aircraft back safely that night, he would have done it."
As investigators later learned, pilot performance played no role in the tragedy. A poorly fitted pin caused the rotor blade to swing into the tail of the Bell 222 helicopter, sending it crashing into a soybean field near its destination of Spencer, 110 miles southeast of Sioux Falls.
One witness was at the Spencer airport hangar, less than a mile from the crash, when navigation lights in the sky caught his attention.
"Something didn't seem right," said Frank Phipps, who was himself a pilot. "I ran around the side of the building. By that time, I knew (the helicopter) was in trouble because I could hear the rotor blades biting into the wind."
Surrounded by mounting evidence that something terrible had happened, including reports of an explosion and fire, Bury held out for a miracle.
"Even when things sound bad, you continue to hope for the best," he said. "I didn't really accept that it was catastrophic until I was on the phone with the fire chief on the scene, telling me he could unequivocally confirm there had been a crash and there were no survivors. And I knew that it was absolutely true."
For 36 years, Cindy Morrison worked in marketing and public policy at Sioux Valley/Sanford, serving as a positive community voice as part of the management team.
After getting a message from Bury that Trauma One could be in trouble, she hopped in her car to head to the hospital, pausing when she hit a red light at 18th and Minnesota.
"I can still see myself sitting at that stoplight, praying that it wasn't a tragedy," she said. "And then my phone started ringing."
What followed was a dizzying series of events in which Morrison arrived at the ER to assess the situation and comfort colleagues, all the while getting more reports about the nature of the crash and the death of three employees.
"Nothing prepares you for that," said Morrison, who worked at Sanford up until last fall. "The grief was just brutal, and there was also a little chaos. You wanted to hope it was just a bad dream, but you knew that was no longer an option."
Her top priority was to notify the families as quickly as possible, a task made more urgent by the flood of media inquiries. Knowing she couldn't hold them off forever, Morrison asked local media outlets to hold off on reporting crash fatalities until family members were contacted.
"That wasn't an easy thing for them to do," she said. "You want to be competitive and the first one on the scene. But there's a certain humanity that comes from being in a smaller community, and their understanding helped ease some of that pressure."
As notifications were made and a new day dawned, Morrison met with Krabbenhoft and fellow executives Dave Link and Becky Nelson to determine a course of action. A health organization whose focus was on helping others seemed momentarily at a loss for how to care for themselves.
"How do you tell an entire workforce that this happened?" said Morrison, "That was our family that we needed to communicate with, and we didn't have all the answers."
Looking back years later, Nelson recalled the painful nature of those discussions.
"We lost three of our own," said the former chief operating officer, who retired in 2013. "It was one of the saddest days of my life."
Krabbenhoft had arrived from Joplin, Missouri, to become the Sioux Valley CEO less than two years earlier and faced an early test of leadership. He needed to show compassion for the families while projecting strength and confidence that the hospital's mission would carry on.
As it turned out, he had help. That message was delivered loud and clear at a memorial service held at Augustana's Elmen Center six days after the tragedy, where a crowd of nearly 2,000 showed up.
The gathering included air ambulance crews from around the region who showed up in uniform and formed lines of tribute to their fallen comrades, a scene that still leads Bury and others to get emotional when recalling it.
"I want to tell all the medical community and those in the emergency response business, you can teach the rest of this world what it means to be on a team," Rev. Brian Mortenson of First Lutheran Church said to the gathering. "The type of teamwork we've witnessed today is quite impressive."
There was talk of pilot "Tiff" as a consummate professional and devoted husband and father. Nolte, 30, was remembered as a skilled paramedic with the perfect temperament to provide care and comfort in equal measures. Wittry, 36, was a farm girl who loved being a flight nurse and embraced challenges, such as caring for victims of the devastating Spencer tornado earlier that year.
Krabbenhoft spoke of rural emergency calls such as childbirth situations and the impact that air ambulance crews have on the communities around them.
"Many of those babies delivered are playing ball, running around the corner and smiling at birthday parties today because a few people decided to climb into a couple thousand pounds of metal and go into the night air to ensure that that child got a chance to live," he said.
The memorial service helped honor the victims and comfort families, but the community also played a role. Morrison recalls being amazed at the sheer magnitude of flowers that arrived at the ER, an endless series of bouquets that overflowed into hallways throughout the hospital.
Once that outpouring faded, though, Sioux Valley employees were left with the difficult task of continuing to care for those in need while nursing a lingering sense of loss.
"Even though everyone's hearts were hurting, we had to take care of everyone," says Morrison. "It puts you in the position of saying, 'Let's keep it together here,' but it's hard. You think it's over when it's over, but it goes on for years. And though you know things like that can happen, you never think they will."
Standing in a memorial garden off the lobby of the Sanford USD Medical Center, Bury reflects on the legacy of Tiffany, Nolte and Wittry, whose likenesses are surrounded by inspirational passages, vases of flowers and respectful silence.
In this place of quiet reflection, where a 20th anniversary service was held this week to honor the crew members, the man who led the program was reminded of how tragedy could have tarnished the health system's intensive air service or sapped the will of its members.
Instead, it reinforced the magnitude of their mission.
"A logical response after something like that happens is, 'Why would I put myself in that position?'" said Bury of the remaining pilots, nurses and EMTs. "You find out about the makeup of your organization, because people are either going to collapse or they're going to rally around the situation and say, 'We have a responsibility to keep going.' I'll tell you this: If we could have put a chopper in the air the next day, they would have been up there."
It took a few weeks, as it turned out, and gained momentum from there. Today, Sanford has its own FAA certificate and maintains an in-house AirMed program with a fleet of four helicopters and four airplanes operating from bases in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Twenty years after that late-summer evening when tragedy struck, the most enduring legacy is a heightened appreciation for those who fly off into the unknown — a common sight for onlookers below and unique sacrifice for those in the air.
"When I think about flight team members, I think about them being subject to call 24/7, taking off in an airplane or helicopter to care for the most critically injured patients that we see," said Bury. "They take care of them in the back of the aircraft, and they can't holler down the hallway to get an extra pair of hands. They're on their own. They're it. The patient is entirely dependent on them and the medical resources that they can carry with them on that flight. In my mind, those are the real heroes."