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The loss of her colleagues inspired a flight nurse to help make the industry safer

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Medical flights can be dangerous. They often fly in poor conditions in remote areas to rescue people. The industry has worked to get safer. Laurel Morales has the story of one Flagstaff flight nurse whose experience of loss inspired her to help make a difference.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: It was the summer of 2008, and Jenn Killeen was eight months pregnant. She worked as chief nurse on medical flights, planes and helicopters. But her doctor ordered her to stay on the ground for her last trimester. So on the afternoon of June 29, she was at the Flagstaff hospital awaiting a helicopter crew - the people she used to fly with. They were due any minute with a patient. That's when a passerby ran into the emergency room.

JENN KILLEEN: She said, I just saw a helicopter crash. And she was physically shaken, crying. And so we walked out the back door, and that's when we heard the explosion.

MORALES: Just a block from the hospital, two helicopters had crashed into each other midair and fallen out of the sky - a flight Jenn could have been on had she still been flying. All Jenn could think about was her crew.

KILLEEN: I looked at my charge nurse, and I said, I'm out.

MORALES: She got in her car and drove toward the plume of smoke. When she arrived, she was immediately overwhelmed by the smell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN BLARING)

MORALES: A YouTube video shows firefighters in yellow helmets circling a mangled hunk of metal stuck in the trees.

KILLEEN: Lots of smoke, pungent, eyes burning, ugh, chemical oil burning aluminum - it's just fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

KILLEEN: I had to essentially identify crew members.

MORALES: Oh, God.

KILLEEN: That was hard. It was horrible. But I got to hold their hands.

MORALES: Seven people died. Jenn knew five of them. The days that followed were a blur of memorials and debriefs. One question on everyone's mind...

KILLEEN: How the hell did this happen?

MORALES: The federal investigation concluded the cause of the crash was pilot error. But that left more questions than answers. And everyone wanted to point a finger. As chief flight nurse, Jenn was concerned for her colleagues who were still flying medical transport.

KILLEEN: And my message to my team - no blame, no blame. This is an accident.

MORALES: The crash rocked the air medical industry. 2008 was one of its deadliest years on record. After the Flagstaff crash, there were six more emergency helicopter accidents within a two-month period. So Jenn set about lobbying for change. Jenn's colleague, flight medic Danny Cox, says training improved.

DANNY COX: And the pilots really have a lot going through their mind - power settings, the temperature of the aircraft, you know, the wind direction. So it's a really busy time for pilots.

MORALES: Flight crews implemented new safety protocols.

COX: We literally on every flight tell our pilots when it's time to take off or land, we're all secure, and our eyes are out. And that's our way of checking ourselves to, OK, get your heads out of the aircraft.

MORALES: The air medical industry installed what's called a terrain collision avoidance system on emergency helicopters and planes that alerts pilots to obstacles. Jenn pushed for better communication and fatigue management.

KILLEEN: I wholeheartedly believe that as awful as that was, we had to go through it to be better.

MORALES: Eventually, Jenn Killeen returned to the air as chief flight nurse, knowing that she played a role making the whole industry safer for herself and her colleagues. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

SUMMERS: This story comes to us from the podcast 2 Lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "MERLION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.