Air medical flight industry honors lost Bryan crew with safety upgrades

BRYAN, Tex. (KBTX) - Eleven years ago, an air medical helicopter left CHI St. Joseph Health and headed to Houston.

It never made it.

The helicopter went down in the Sam Houston National Forest, and all four people on board died.

The patient, David Disman.

The pilot, Wayne Kirby.

The flight nurse, Jana Bishop.

The flight EMT, Stephanie Waters.

Since that day 11 years ago, the team they left behind has worked with the larger air medical helicopter to try to make sure that never happens again.

For Billy Rice, the mission is personal. He was their supervisor.

“I had hired them, trained them, knew them well,” said Rice, the CHI St. Joseph Health AirMed 12 supervisor.

Rice lost friends that day, and he still doesn't know exactly why.

“There's no more frustrating question in the world than why that aircraft went down, and there is no answer,” said Rice. “Speculation is everything from weather to distraction.”

The crash of that Bryan-based flight crew were among 16 air medical deaths in the U.S. in 2008.

“As soon as our accident happened on June 8, that was really the straw where the entire industry came together,” Rice said. “Within months, all of the air medical companies found themselves in Washington, D.C. collaborating.”

AirMed 12 Flight EMT Steve VonGonton was hired two years after the crash. He didn’t know Kirby, Bishop and Waters, but he still thinks of them.

“We like to honor them in everything that we do,” said VonGonton. “That event is something that caused a nationwide change, so it has given us the comfort that we have the opportunity to change something.”

The changes have been significant. Rice says all of their helicopters now have full autopilot and night vision. The crews also have a new system for assessing risky weather.

The longer process can be a hassle. But they're still saving lives, and honoring their friends who lost theirs.

While Rice says he’s proud of the changes, it’s a job forever unfinished.

“I don't think it's ever done, as an air medical supervisor,” said Rice. “But putting people in a helicopter on a daily basis? I sleep better.”

“I know my crews are trained better than they've ever been trained,” Rice said, “and are operating more safely than they ever have.”

Congressman Bill Flores (R-District 17) even honored the CHI St. Joseph PHI AirMed 12 crew on the floor of the House of Representatives for all they've done to keep first responders safe.