Lifesaving Mission Ends With 6 Dead

The search for parts of the Cessna 550 Citation that crashed over Lake Michigan while transporting an organ is to resume today, the investigation into cause of accident also continues.


ANN ARBOR, Mich. --

The patient lay on the operating table, prepped for transplant surgery. In the air over Lake Michigan, a twin-engine plane sped his way, carrying a team of surgeons and technicians, along with a donor organ on ice.

The plane never made it, crashing into the lake's choppy waters and killing all six people aboard Monday.

Now the critically ill patient could become the accident's seventh fatality.

"It was a very sad moment in the operating room" when word was received that the plane had gone down on its way from Milwaukee, said Dr. Jeffrey Punch, chief of transplant surgery at the University of Michigan Health System hospital in Ann Arbor.

Hospital officials and organ-donation authorities would not identify the transplant patient other than to say he was a man, and would not say what type of organ he was awaiting, citing medical privacy rules. But one of the doctors killed was a cardiac surgeon, suggesting the patient was about to get a new heart or lungs.

He was put back on the waiting list for another organ and was reported to be "very critically ill." Authorities would not comment on his chances of finding another organ in time.

The Cessna 550 Citation crashed about 5 p.m., shortly after takeoff on a flight to Ann Arbor that should have taken 42 minutes. One of the pilots reported severe difficulty steering the plane because of trouble with its trim system, which controls bank and pitch, said National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Brannen.

Brannen said the pilot had signaled an emergency and was making a left turn and heading back to the Milwaukee airport when the plane went down.

The cause of the crash was under investigation. Brannen said the plane's safety and maintenance records were not immediately available.

Killed were both pilots, two University of Michigan surgeons, and two technicians whose job was to prepare the organ for transplant.

"We now know our team is lost," said Dr. Robert Kelch, chief executive of the University of Michigan Health System. "This is a tremendous blow to the institution, one from which we won't quickly or easily recover."

He added: "They died while trying to do what it is they do every day - helping someone else find hope."

As of Tuesday afternoon, the donor organ, which was packed in ice in a cooler, had not been found. Hearts can last outside the body for only four to six hours and lungs eight hours, said Dr. Tony D'Alessandro, executive director of University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic Organ Procurement Organization.

On the morning of the crash, the Ann Arbor hospital's Survival Flight Team had received word that an organ was available at an unidentified hospital in the Milwaukee area, and immediately assembled to bring it back to Ann Arbor, officials said.

The team included two veterans, cardiac surgeon Dr. Martinus "Martin" Spoor and transplant donation specialist Richard Chenault II, who had flown dozens of such missions. Also on the team was Dr. David Ashburn, a 35-year-old physician-in-training in pediatric cardiothoracic surgery, and another transplant donation specialist, Richard LaPensee.

The team flew to Milwaukee, and the two surgeons removed the donor's organ, which was then packaged for transport. The team contacted the Ann Arbor hospital and gave the go-ahead for the surgery to begin on the transplant patient at 2:45 p.m., Punch said.

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