The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance…
Adrian recalls, “I think I spent the first six months after the accident in denial. Physically, I felt fine. Except for having lost a lot of weight and strength, I felt the same as I did before the accident. Despite all of my injuries, it wasn’t until I’d finished healing that the permanence of my injuries sank in.
“I remember the first time in the hospital that I saw my arms and my hands. The mesh grafts on my arms gave the skin a very bumpy texture, and hyper-pigmentation turned it dark brown. It looked exactly like burnt chicken skin. My finger tips had turned black and necrotic, like in the pictures I’d seen of frostbitten hands. I thought, ‘this can’t be good.’ But I wasn’t in any pain and I was still in the hospital then, so I thought that things would improve.
“Eventually the finger tips fell off to leave behind malformed finger nails and delicate scar tissue. My arms’ pigment lightened up, but scar tissue proliferated where the skin grafts had failed. I still had some plastic surgery to undergo, but as my rate of improvement leveled off, my disappointment grew. It slowly dawned on me that this was the new me.”
In the hospital, Adrian received incredible care. The chief pilot of the logging company visited and did his best to help out Adrian’s mother and father, and Wendy, as well. The insurance company that was paying for all of his treatment and workers’ compensation gave Adrian everything he asked for, and continues paying him to this day. Adrian felt no anger or blame towards anyone. He had accepted the accident as just an unfortunate, random event that happened to him, just a part of flying. He was, after all, basically fine.
This changed as the day to day difficulties manifested themselves. Adrian reminded himself that these were nothing more than little inconveniences and that his injuries were mostly superficial. Unlike many burn victims, he still had his lips, nose, and most of his ears. Adrian had started working out again, and at one point, was running over 12 kilometers. But, the stares from strangers and the annoying breakdown of the skin on his hands reminded him that things were not the same. Where he used to run, hike, ski, and paddle, now he could only watch the temperatures and cover up. Adrian’s life had gone from facing outdoor challenges to avoiding outdoor challenges. The life that he knew had been taken from him.
Adrian was worried about his financial future as well. Workers compensation paid 80 percent of his working salary, but Adrian had been the lowest paid employee in the company. The company paid new, unskilled, untrained assistants to the helicopter mechanics more than what they paid new copilots. He was also concerned about the longevity of his disability pay. Adrian had still not received his permanent disability rating from the State of California.
Adrian was becoming angry, the second stage of grief. Nearly a year after the crash, which was the time limit for filing a personal injury lawsuit, he contacted attorneys that specialized in aviation claims. They told him that workers compensation laws prevented him from suing his employer, but the Sea King had a history of clutch failures resulting in crashes similar to the one that he experienced. This was also something that his chief pilot had mentioned. Apparently, some design flaw was being blamed for a similar crash that took place about a year before Adrian’s, and his would not be the last…
While in the hospital, Adrian had received a “get well” card from a company copilot that he had met while she was training in Oregon. She was married to a company pilot and was getting her helicopter license so that she could work alongside her husband. In August of 2002, five months after Adrian’s crash, her helicopter crashed in Canada, killing her and the command pilot. A clutch failure was blamed for that accident. In this case, the clutch failed while attempting to lift a heavy load of logs. With the rotor blades angled steeply to generate maximum lift, they “stalled” almost immediately when the clutch slipped. The pilots had almost no chance of making a survivable landing at such a low altitude.
The theory behind these accidents goes as follows: the Sikorsky S61 has two engines, two clutches (called input free-wheel units), and one transmission. When one clutch slips, the engine feeding that clutch meets with less resistance and develops an over-speed condition. The electronic engine management system attempts to prevent damage to the over-speeding engine by shutting down both engines. Thus, two problems existed:
- the clutch failures; and,
- the engine shutdowns.
Adrian filed his lawsuit in February of 2003.
In March, three days before the anniversary date of his crash, another Sea King crashed in Tennessee, killing the command pilot and severely burning the copilot. This helicopter belonged to a different Oregon company that also flew S61’s. Coincidentally, Adrian had previously met the surviving copilot, and this pilot would hire one of Adrian’s attorneys to represent him in a separate lawsuit.
Adrian was joined in his lawsuit by Loren Goetzke’s widow. As attorneys are trained to do, they threw a bucket of manure into a business meeting and sued anyone that came out smelling like crap. In this case, the defendants were Sikorsky, the helicopter manufacturer; General Electric, the engine manufacturer; and a company from Connecticut that manufactured replacement clutches. Adrian’s former employer, the Croman Corporation, also filed a lawsuit against Sikorsky to replace the helicopter that was lost.
A trial date was set for November of 2005. The two and half year stomach-churning pause before the trial is called the “discovery” period. This is when attorneys rack up huge amounts of debt hiring specialists and expert witnesses to write up reports building up their case, and criss-crossing the country taking depositions from company employees, accident victims, and witnesses.
Meanwhile, the plaintiff – Adrian – goes on with his life wondering if anything valuable will fall out of the giant dung ball he got rolling.
In April of 2004, Adrian married his girlfriend, Wendy, in a small ceremony at the local courthouse. He had proposed to her in the hospital after seeing how much trouble she was going through to be with him in Sacramento. The drive from their home in Oregon to the hospital in Sacramento was over eight hours, and she would have to take off from work to spend extra time with him. She had been at his side during his coma, when his continued existence was uncertain. And she stayed at a campground in an outlying town to avoid spending money that they didn’t have.
“I put her through hell,” Adrian says, “and she stuck with me. She didn’t have to, I was unconscious and I wouldn’t have known. Plus, she technically wasn’t next of kin, so she was pushed aside sometimes when my family came to visit, but she always came back after they left. I think that says a lot about the depth of her love.”
As the trial date crept closer, a date was set for pre-trial negotiations. This is the event that lawyers were bred for. No one really wants to go through the expense and uncertainty of a trial, especially not the courts. At the negotiations table, it’s a no-holds-barred attorney on attorney combat, where six walk in, and only one limps out. This is where the plaintiff’s attorney beats his/her chest and bluffs the defendants into offering an out of court settlement. No jury, no judge, just an arbitrator/mediator. The championship bout was scheduled for September, 2005, in Oakland, California, just outside of San Francisco.
On pre-trial negotiations day, Adrian was met with a room full of what he assumed were extremely well paid attorneys. Some could have been well dressed assistants, for all he knew, but there’s no way to tell them apart without a blood test. On one side of the table were five plaintiffs’ attorneys: three representing Adrian and two representing Loren’s widow. On the other side of the table were eight defendants’ attorneys: two representing Sikorsky, two representing General Electric, two representing Global Aerospace Insurance, the company insuring Sikorsky and General Electric; and two representing the clutch manufacturer. Last but kind of least, one attorney representing the State workers’ compensation insurance company, sort of a co-plaintiff, who wanted Adrian to win so that the insurance company could get back some of their money. The workers compensation attorney was only there to negotiate a settlement with Adrian’s attorneys and not to participate in the other negotiations.
All-in-all, fourteen law professionals, each probably making more money in one day than Adrian ever made in a month, were glaring and gnashing their teeth at each other because he had opened his big mouth. God only knows how much money had already been spent by all parties up to this point.
“I couldn’t believe how many attorneys were in that room, plus one semi-retired judge who was the mediator. I regretted, immediately, what I’d started.”
Adrian’s lead attorney told him that the fact that Global Aerospace had sent their heavy hitters was a very good sign. After introductions, the plaintiffs and defendants stated their cases, with the mediator asking very insightful questions for clarification. Then the combatants were sent to separate rooms to begin writing numbers on little slips of paper.
Once in a while, someone would show up and hand Adrian’s attorneys a slip of paper, which usually resulted in not much reaction from his lead attorney. In fact, not much could distract his lead attorney from the crossword puzzle that he was solving. Meanwhile, Adrian and his other attorneys were nervous wrecks. Hours would go by before they’d hear back from a defendant. Apparently, Adrian’s attorneys were negotiating with each defendant, separately.
Later in the afternoon, someone handed Adrian’s lead attorney a slip of paper that made him look up and ask if that offer was enough for everyone else. He was met with smiles and enthusiastic nodding.
Adrian was relieved to be receiving enough of a settlement to cover attorneys’ fees and still leave him something to live off of until he could get back on his feet. As Adrian saw it, he and his attorneys were lucky to get anything at all.
Adrian thought that the evidence in his case was weak. The crash burned so fiercely that the magnesium transmission housing burned up, destroying any evidence of scoring on the clutch plates and transmission gears. Adrian had no memory of the accident, so he could not offer any useful testimony. Finally, Croman Corporation’s records were unclear as to whose parts were in the helicopter. Most of Adrian’s case relied on how sympathetic jurors would be to Adrian as a witness and victim, and on the rash of crashes that took place around the time of his crash.
“I was glad that it was finally over.”
By settling out of court, the defendants admitted no guilt. Sikorsky was also in the middle of a competition for the next presidential helicopter contract, so it may have been reluctant to go to trial where this case and the other crashes might have been publicized.
In a move that meant a lot to him, two of the attorneys for Sikorsky and General Electric came up to Adrian after the negotiations and expressed their regrets for what happened to him and wished him well. “Up to that point, I felt like all I did was complained and pissed everyone off. Then these two attorneys came over and showed genuine concern for my condition. Now I felt bad because they seemed like really nice guys and I sued them to make them give me their money.”
A few weeks later, Adrian had signed all of the papers for authorizing payments to his attorneys and to himself. Then he gave notice at the natural gas company where he had gotten a job earlier in the year as a meter reader. He and Wendy needed to get away from Oregon and start over. They wanted to go to Montana where Wendy spent a large part of her childhood.
The following January, Adrian tried to make up for what he had put his parents through by buying his mother a brand new car for her birthday. It was the first brand new car that she had ever owned. Being able to give his mother that present probably meant more to him than it did to her. Adrian knew how hard she worked and how much she sacrificed to be able to see her children safe and happy. “I wished I could have given her more.”
Today, Adrian and Wendy live with their dog, Gremlin, and their two cats, collectively called “those two pains in the ass,” in Missoula, Montana. Adrian, his confidence shaken, has given up on flying helicopters, even though he is captivated by them. He believes that he was a Bell 47 in a previous life. This, of course, implies that he was a very bad helicopter that was destroyed and reincarnated as Adrian. He tried but failed to get back into the Forest Service, and tried to learn but was grossed out by x-ray technology. If he doesn’t find a legitimate career soon, Adrian just might have to go back to flying helicopters. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stupider.
P.S. On August 5, 2008, a Sikorsky S61N Sea King belonging to Carson Helicopter Services, Inc., of Grants Pass, Oregon, crashed outside of Weaverville, California, killing eight firefighters and one pilot. The copilot escaped with severe burns, along with three firefighters. The crash occurred on the other side of Shasta Lake from Adrian’s crash.
Croman Corporation’s suit against Sikorsky for the loss of the helicopter was dismissed because of the age of the helicopter.
Here is more information from the NTSB on the findings of Adrian’s Crash.
Here are more sites about other S61 crashes: