Pilot Matt Mathews died a hero.

Mathews was at the helm of the EagleMed helicopter that crashed into a wooded area Thursday night near Lake Eufaula, killing Mathews and injuring two crewmates — Nurse Kim Ramsey and Paramedic Ryan Setzkorn.

It is not known yet what caused the crash, but we can say two things with absolute certainty at this point as the investigation proceeds: first, Mathews, Ramsey and Setzkorn put themselves at great risk giving themselves for the benefit of others. Specifically, on the night in question, the crew had lifeflighted 13-year-old Dillan McCoy to Tulsa after the youth was critically injured in a pedestrian-vehicle traffic accident in McAlester. For this sacrifice and the countless others the crew has carried out,  we offer our thanks and appreciation.

Mathews perished in the line of duty and he should forever be remembered as a hero on behalf of the citizens of southeast Oklahoma.

Another thing we can say with certainty as well — the safety of these helicopter flights has to be addressed. Some of us at the News-Capital have been down this road before — some of us multiple times — covering tragedy just like this, whether it be here in southeast Oklahoma or across the nation at other newspapers. The story line is almost identical: a helicopter crew risks life and limb to save others, their chopper goes down in the middle of the night, and everyone is left to cope with the resulting  heartbreaking tragedy.

The Federal Aviation Administration is trying to address this critical issue. In February 2014 the FAA issued a sweeping final regulatory rule that required helicopter operators, including air ambulances, “to have stricter flight rules and procedures, improved communications and training and additional on-board safety equipment.”

A check of the death toll from these type of accidents, meanwhile, is staggering. The FAA in a statement on its new rule said in 2008 five accidents claimed 21 lives.

“The FAA examined helicopter air ambulance accidents from 1991 through 2010 and determined 62 accidents that claimed 125 lives could have been mitigated by (the new rule,” the agency said. “While developing the rule, the FAA considered 20 commercial helicopter accidents from 1991 through 2010 (excluding air ambulances) that resulted in 39 fatalities. From 2011 through 2013, there were seven air ambulance accidents resulting in 19 fatalities and seven commercial helicopter accidents that claimed 20 lives.”

Those numbers are shocking.

We as a community, and as a nation, must do more to make sure the death of heroes like Matt Mathews aren’t in vain.

Contact Glenn Puit by email at gpuit@mcalesterenws.com.

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Glenn Puit is the editor of the McAlester News-Capital.

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