It was just before 1 p.m. Tuesday, and the children and teachers of Drexel Hill United Methodist Nursery School were preparing for dismissal.
But a loud chopping noise in the distance drew them to the window.
The teachers and children looked on as a blue and white medical helicopter was flying erratically, and descending toward them, said Pastor Russell Atkinson.
Unsure of where the unit would land, teachers corralled the small group of children and quickly headed toward the back of the building to safety, Atkinson said.
“It was quite clear, and a matter of fact frightening, that the helicopter was coming so close,” Atkinson said Wednesday. “It’s really impossible to imagine whether the helicopter is going to land short, far, or right on top.”
But in what first responders and witnesses are calling a miracle, the chopper avoided all surrounding structures, telephone poles, and wires, and despite crashing into the street, its four passengers — a 2-month-old baby, nurse, medic, and pilot — survived without life-threatening injuries.
The flight began at 12:05 p.m. in Franklin County, when the helicopter — a Maryland-based LifeNet Eurocopter EC135 owned by Air Methods — picked up the baby girl from WellSpan Chambersburg Hospital and headed toward the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
But while flying over Route 1 about 45 minutes later, it began experiencing issues.
The pilot searched for a place to land, gliding lower and lower for about a mile, officials said, before plummeting and crashing into the street at Bloomfield Avenue and Burmont Road, skidding into the side of Drexel Hill United Methodist Church.
The baby was unharmed and continued on to CHOP by ambulance, officials said.
The pilot was seriously injured and taken to Presbyterian Medical Center. On Wednesday, his “prognosis is good,” but he remained “uncomfortable and medicated” and was not yet able to speak with investigators, said Brian Rayner, senior air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
The church’s structure was not damaged, but some landscaping was. The nursery class quickly exited the building after the crash, Atkinson said, and parents were able to pick up their children.
The cause of the crash remained under investigation Wednesday, and the NTSB remained on site.
Removal of the helicopter began around 4 p.m. It will eventually be taken to Delaware, where a more detailed examination — including downloading electronic components and data, and deconstructing and analyzing mechanical equipment — will continue, Rayner said.
Rayner said investigators remain in the “data gathering phase.” A preliminary report is expected be released in about two weeks, but the full investigation will likely take one to two years.
When the emergency teams reviewed the initial 911 calls, one recording included that of a bystander who handed the phone to the flight medic, who explained that there were some injuries in the crash, but that the baby on board needed to be prioritized, said Tim Boyce, director of Delaware County’s Department of Emergency Services.
“His only concern was the infant,” said Boyce. “This shows the kind of courage and character of the folks on this flight.”
Helicopter crashes, though rare, can prove fatal for passengers. According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s reports, 56 aircraft accidents and incidents have been reported in 2022, resulting in four fatalities.
“I’ve been reassessing my interpretation of miracle ever since,” said Atkinson, a Springfield native who has been the pastor of Drexel Hill United Methodist for five years.
“Even the most religious of us live our lives very much in a scientific worldview,” he said. He began reflecting on the words of David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher.
“A miracle has to be something ‘beyond the natural law,’” he said, “and you know, that works. But surely this is a miracle.”
“The air safety people are going to be able to figure out exactly what happened, what flight path did this helicopter take … how did the pilot respond. And even if we do know all of this, still, it’s a miracle that no one was hurt,” he said.
The nursery, which schools about 20 children ages 3 to 5, four days a week, returned to class Wednesday, the children spending most of the day outside the class and running in the gymnasium.
Air Methods, the air medical service based in Greenwood Village, Colo., declined to comment further on the crash. The pilot, nurse, and medic — all employees of Air Methods — were not made available for an interview.
As investigation into Drexel Hill helicopter crash continues, pastor of nearby church reflects on ‘miracle’ that everyone survived