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New Ordeals, Fresh Wounds For Medevac Crash Survivor

Note: this article originally appeared in the Washington Post on December 16th, 2008.
Gregory S. Winton is the aviation attorney representing Ms. Wells.

The Washington Post
December 16, 2008

The emergency medical technician leaned over and whispered into Jordan Wells's ear. The weather is too bad for the helicopter to land at Prince George's Hospital Center. We're turning around.

The news didn't scare the 18-year-old any more than what she had already been through that night: crashing her car on a rain-slicked road in Waldorf, learning that she and a friend would be flown to a trauma center.

But soon the medical helicopter began to rock, Wells said, describing the Sept. 27 ordeal in her first detailed interviews. Her eyes darted up to the EMT, Tonya Mallard, and to an onboard paramedic, Mickey Lippy. They were clinging to their seats.

Suddenly, over the chop of blades, Wells heard branches scraping the helicopter.

Everything went black.

When Wells opened her eyes, she was sprawled on the ground in what seemed like a forest. She was shivering, and a drizzle was falling on her bare arms. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness.

To her right was the twisted wreckage of the helicopter, jet fuel pooling around it. No one else was moving or even crying. There was only silence.

"I was alone and hurting and cold, and I didn't know if anyone was going to find me," Wells said.

She rolled up the hem of her jeans, revealing a bloody tangle of muscle, bone and skin. She tucked her hands under her thighs and tried to inch farther from the helicopter. Pain shot up from her toes.

Again, everything went black.

Wells is the only survivor of the worst disaster in the state medevac program's history of nearly five decades, a crash that led to new procedures for the approval of such flights. Four others aboard the helicopter were killed: her 17-year-old friend Ashley Younger, the pilot, the EMT and the paramedic.

The crash left Wells with a broken cheekbone, nose and eye socket. Broken shoulder blade. Compound fracture in left elbow. Bruised lung. One dislodged disk in the neck, four in the back. Everything below the knees was shattered in both legs, including every bone in every toe. (PAGE ONE END)

Hospitalized for weeks, she is only now able to talk publicly about the details of that night.

When Wells opened her eyes for a second time, she began sobbing and crying for help. It had been two hours since the helicopter went down.

"I just prayed to God that someone would save me," she said.

Then, a man's voice: "She's over here! She's over here!"

Wells and the helicopter were deep in Walker Mill Regional Park in Prince George's County, hundreds of yards from the nearest road and about six miles from the hospital.

The air was thick with jet fuel vapor. Fearing an explosion, her rescuers -- three members of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command -- strapped her onto a stretcher and ran from the wreckage.

She was drenched in fuel, so emergency workers, apologizing, stripped off her clothes and sprayed her with a fire hose.

They wrapped her in blankets and reassured her that she would soon be at the hospital. Wells grabbed the arm of someone nearby. "I don't want to go in a helicopter," she pleaded.

In the ambulance, everything faded into a warm blur.

That weekend, Younger had returned home from college in Western Maryland. She and Wells, who had become friends during Senior Week in Ocean City and were inseparable all summer, went to a carnival on Saturday night and then drove by the homecoming dance at their alma mater, Westlake High School in Waldorf.

Shortly before 11 p.m., Wells hit a patch of water on Smallwood Drive, skidded across a median and collided with an oncoming car. Wells said she was going 5 mph under the speed limit, but given the conditions, even that might have been too fast, investigators have said.

Wells and Younger were clutching their necks in pain. Emergency responders decided that they needed to get to a trauma center fast. The helicopter landed at nearby William B. Wade Elementary School.

Mallard, the EMT, offered to ride along and care for Wells while Lippy looked after Younger. It was so loud in the helicopter that Mallard didn't hear Wells ask her to hold her hand.

Soon after takeoff, heavy fog set in. The helicopter was redirected. About 11:55 p.m., air traffic controllers at Andrews Air Force Base cleared the helicopter for landing. At 11:57, controllers lost contact.

Around the same time, Lynn Wells was at home in Waldorf, text-messaging her daughter. Jordan, a lifeguard and a freshman at the College of Southern Maryland, lived with her parents. It wasn't like her to not respond.

Even so, at 2 a.m., her mother went to sleep.

The phone rang two hours later. Jordan Wells was at the trauma center in Cheverly, a police officer said.

There were no details. As they raced to the hospital, Lynn and her husband, Scott, tried to imagine how their daughter had been hurt.

They found her sedated in an emergency room.

Jordan was a pitiful sight. She lay under a large hot-air-filled blanket. Her hair was greasy with jet fuel. Her torn-up face was covered with a gauze pad. Her chest rose and fell with the help of a ventilator.

"What happened?" her parents asked.

A doctor showed them an X-ray. His words swirled around them: Accident. Helicopter. Legs. Blood flow. Right leg needs to come off. What would they like to do?

"I said, 'Try to save it,' " Lynn Wells said, tears welling months later as she remembered the moment. "All of this stuff was happening, and we had to make a decision. I know her. I knew she would want her leg."

The doctors tried. For two weeks, they tried.

The Wellses, meanwhile, met their daughter's three rescuers and heard their explanation of how she survived: When the helicopter hit the trees, a door must have somehow sprung open and she must have slid out. She and the helicopter fell to the ground separately.

"All we really know is that the helicopter was crushed to smithereens, and she was lying beside it," Scott Wells said.

At Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where Jordan Wells was transferred almost immediately, surgeons pulled debris from her legs for days -- dirt, rocks, plastic, bits of denim, metal chunks, bark, pine needles and grass. One surgeon told the family the wounds were the dirtiest he had seen in 30 years.

For a time, a breathing tube prevented Wells from speaking. She communicated by squeezing hands or giving a thumbs up.

Outside the hospital, her father attended four funerals. But in the intensive care unit, he did not mention them. No one knew how much Wells remembered, and her parents weren't ready to tell her.

Ten days after the crash, the tube was removed, and Wells was able to speak.

"Dad," she said immediately, "I am so sorry I wrecked the car."

Wells's parents reassured her that they didn't care about the car, a 2003 Ford Taurus. They were just glad she was alive.

"Dad," Wells said, "I was in a helicopter crash."

After a moment, Scott Wells replied: "Yes. Yes, you were. We'll talk about that later."

"Where's Ashley?" she asked them.

Her parents changed the subject.

Two days later, a doctor told Wells that her right leg would have to be amputated below the knee. It was the same day her parents told her about Younger.

"Jordan, we have to talk about everything that's going on," Scott Wells said. "You know you were in a helicopter crash, right?"

She nodded.

"I just want you to know that no one survived."

He told her about Mallard, Lippy and pilot Stephen H. Bunker, telling her what each was like and what was said at their funerals.

A moment passed, and his daughter asked, "What about Ashley?"

"Jordan, remember I told you, nobody survived."

Everything clicked. Wells broke down.

For two months after the crash, at the hospital and then at a rehabilitation facility, Wells felt surrounded by a protective bubble. Nurses doted. Visitors brought gifts. Medication numbed pain and dulled emotions. It was perfectly normal to be an amputee.

Reality began to sink in when Wells returned home the day before Thanksgiving. She has lost weight. Sometimes, in a phenomenon common among new amputees, she feels like she is wiggling toes on a foot she no longer has.

"I realize that I'm on my own now," she said. "I think it finally hit me that I'm an amputee. Just to see my friends walking around, to hear them talking about shopping and things they are doing, it makes me so sad."

She does physical therapy three times a week. Friends visit, as does her boyfriend of nine months.

But her emotions remain so raw Wells can barely talk about Younger. She collapses in tears when asked about the lives lost, her role in the tragedy.

Wells has not talked directly to relatives of any of the people who were killed. Her parents have been in touch with them, relaying to her that none blames her for what happened.

Last Sunday, for the first time since the crash, Wells attended church with her family.

"We praise God that his beloved little girl has returned home," the Rev. Christopher Ogne told parishioners at Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Bryans Road.

The small congregation burst into applause. Family friends hugged her. The pastor's wife held her hand. Children wandered over to look at the thick plastic brace that supports her back and to rub the smooth stump where her lower leg used to be. Wells wiped away tears.

"Thank you," she told them, one after the other. "Thank you so much."

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