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Bennet, Polis, Frisco Flight for Life widow Karen Mahany celebrate signing of helicopter safety law
Sunshine streamed through static rotors of a North Colorado EMS helicopter onto a small crowd gathered in front of it on Friday morning as fallen Flight For Life pilot Patrick Mahany's legacy was cemented at a ceremony at the High Country Training Center in Frisco.
Dignitaries including Rep. Jared Polis and Sen. Michael Bennet joined Patrick's widow, Karen Mahany, and severely-injured flight nurse Dave Repsher in celebrating the passage of legislation that may save the lives of future EMS pilots and crew; legislation that would not have been possible were it not for Patrick's sacrifice and Karen's crusade to prevent more deaths.
The helicopter fuel system safety amendment was attached to the Federal Aviation Administration's reauthorization bill and signed into law Friday morning by President Trump. It will require manufacturers to install crash-resistant fuel tanks in newly manufactured helicopters, closing a loophole that had allowed manufacturers to avoid upgrading tanks in new helicopters if they were certified for safety before 1994.
The crash happened on July 3, 2015, when the Flight For Life helicopter Mahany was piloting spun out of control and crashed into the parking lot at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center.
Immediately after crashing, the fuel tanks erupted into flames. Repsher and another flight nurse, Matt Bowe, survived the crash and fire. But Repsher suffered horrific burns on 90 percent of his body, and Mahany, a 64-year-old decorated Vietnam War veteran who had saved many lives in his 27 years as a Flight For Life pilot, died from smoke inhalation. Had the fuel tanks been crash-resistant, the fire might have been prevented.
Speaking to the crowd, which was made up mainly of first responders, Karen Mahany said she was compelled to close the loophole after learning that 1,300 other people had died in incidents similar to her husband's. Mahany made it her life's mission since the crash to protect EMS crews from her husband's fate, testifying to Congress several times to close the loophole and improve helicopter safety. Mahany said that she recruited an important ally, the late Senator John McCain, who gave her advice on how to protect his fellow Vietnam veteran's legacy with legislation.
"In Washington, D.C., I met with an amazing individual, Senator John McCain," Mahany said. "His words to me stuck with me. … he said, 'You go home to Colorado, get a bipartisan effort with this, bring it forward and we will push it forward because it's the right thing to do.'"
Polis and Rep. Ed Perlmutter joined in the crusade to do "the right thing," and ferried the legislation through the House, while Bennet and Sen. Cory Gardner ushered it through the Senate. After three years, the fuel tank legislation has been signed into law, thanks to the bipartisan effort.
"This legislation is having ripple effects, and other helicopter safety measures are being enacted here and all the way in Europe, where they're considering similar helicopter safety measures," Mahany said.
Repsher spoke next, saying he wished he could have done more to help Mahany in her crusade while he was recovering in the hospital. Regardless, he was thankful Mahany turned the tragedy into something positive, and thanked her for her courage. Repsher also thanked the congressional representatives for getting the legislation passed.
"Against the headwinds, they passed legislation in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner," Repsher told the crowd. "I think Colorado should be very proud of its delegation, and the fact they got it through."
Polis spoke next, effusive in his praise for Karen Mahany and her perseverance, and Repsher's resilience in recovering from such devastating injuries said that Congress' primary purpose in getting this legislation passed was to protect first responders.
"We want to provide the very best safety experience for those who put their life on the line, taking time away from family at all hours to make our mountain communities safer," Polis said. Polis also read a letter from Perlmutter, while an aide to Gardner read a letter from him, as they were both unable to attend the event and wanted to thank Mahany and first responders for their work and sacrifice.
Bennet described the journey to the fuel tank legislation as "Mrs. Mahany Goes to Washington," but also praised local journalism for its role in bringing the issue forward, saying the loophole was only brought to light when 9News reporter Chris Vanderveen did his research and made the revelation public.
When asked what allowed this legislation to move forward, Bennet put the praise squarely on Karen Mahany's shoulders.
"This is an example of how federal government should work, and how it should be responsive to the needs of its citizens," Bennet said. "The whole delegation worked together well on this, and we work together on a lot of things, but we couldn't have broke through this bulwark of resistance without Karen's leadership. It's a great testament to Karen and her love for her husband that this is now the law, and it's going to mean that other lives are not needlessly lost."Content originally published by Summit Daily on October 26, 2018.