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Homecoming

Steve Smith, his wife, Norma, and daughters, Lauren and Natalie, are grateful for the support they received from the South Whidbey community after Steve was seriously injured Jan. 20 when the helicopter he was piloting crashed.  - Gayle Saran
Steve Smith, his wife, Norma, and daughters, Lauren and Natalie, are grateful for the support they received from the South Whidbey community after Steve was seriously injured Jan. 20 when the helicopter he was piloting crashed.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

For the past seven weeks, Steve Smith's only goal has been to come home.

After visualizing the tranquil setting of his Clinton home through several major surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation at Harborview Medical Center, the Clinton helicopter pilot got his wish last week.

Seven weeks after sustaining life-threatening injuries in a helicopter crash near the rural town of Baring, Smith was standing on his front porch looking out over his favorite view on his five-acre homestead, a view that includes a pond that is a wildlife sanctuary for birds and wildlife. It was a big change from hospital walls and from almost two months of wondering if he would walk again.

"I kept this vision in my mind," he said this week. "My goal was to get back here, come home. I love sitting on the porch and watching the wildlife and listening to the sounds of honking geese as they land and the incredibly loud croaking of the frogs each spring."

Smith, who has made a career out of saving others by flying them to the critical care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, became a trauma patient himself on Jan. 20. While flying his Airlift Northwest medical evacuation helicopter that day, he crashed near U.S. Highway 2 after an engine malfunction.

His injuries were severe. Piloting alone in the crash, he suffered a ruptured aorta, broken spine and sternum, and a crushed left arm when the more than four tons of helicopter fell out of the sky. To keep him alive, surgeons at Harborview repaired three breaks in Smith's sternum, stopped life-threatening bleeding in his aorta, and mended his spine and elbow with titanium screws.

After all this, his initial homecoming last week -- which was followed by his discharge from Harborview this week -- was the end of a long trip back from the edge of death. After spending all his nights with his wife, Norma, sleeping in cot next to his hospital bed, even those initial few hours at home seemed like the endpoint of an ordeal that started when he heard the first helicopter engine fail on that morning in January.

"I got a 24-hour pass like in the military to come home for a night," Smith said. "It was very emotional for both of us."

Smith credits his survival to the several factors, the most important of which was the response from his rescuers. The night before the crash, Smith and two nurses responded to an emergency call to provide transport for an injured snowboarder near Stevens Pass. By the time the snowoboarder was brought down the mountain, a snowstorm and heavy fog were developing in the valley. Knowing it was unsafe to fly in those conditions, Smith called for an ambulance to transport the snowbaorder and the nurses to the hospital.

After spending the night with the King County Fire Department in Skykomish, Smith returning to his helicopter about 7 a.m. Sunday morning to return to his base at Arlington Airport. He said he took precautions to make certain his trip was safe, including a 20-25-minute engine warmup. Under normal weather conditions, a helicopter is ready two fly in about two minutes.

But shortly after lifting off the ground in the Augusta A-109 Mark II helicopter, Smith began experiencing engine trouble.

"One engine failed and I was attempting an emergency landing when the second engine failed," he said.

Smith was in radio contact with the Skykomish fire chief at the time of the crash. Having driven Smith to his aircraft that morning, the chief was at the door of the helicopter within 30 seconds of the crash expecting the worst.

"He told me later he expected to find me dead," Smith said. "But I was conscious and talking. I said, "George get me out of here."

If he had to crash a helicopter, Smith could not have done it in a better place. The craft came down in the only open area in the vicinity and a quick emergency medical response from Monroe were crucial. They made the best of his "golden hour" -- the first hour after a traumatic injury which is the critical time for treatment. He was in surgery within 45 minutes of the accident.

"Everything worked in Steve's favor," said Norma Smith of the day of the crash. "We are very fortunate."

Norma believes her husband's 30 years of experience as a pilot were also a factor in his survival.

"As the engines were failing, he began reacting automatically doing what he had been trained to do," she said.

Caught in what pilots call a "dead man's curve" when the engines went out, Smith's helicopter was too low to the ground to make a safe lading on failing rotors. He said the chances of surviving this sort of scenario are almost nil.

"I am walking, talking and very lucky to be alive." he said.

An emergency medical technician in addition to being a pilot, Smith also knew enough to direct some of his treatment after the crash. When medics arrived 15 minutes after the crash, Steve was able to give them permission to intubate him. However he doesn't remember doing this.

Recounting the events that led up to the crash as they were explained to him by Gold Bar and Monroe fire department personnel called to the scene, Smith said there is a big gap in his memory.

"I was conscience after the crash," he said. "But I don't remember anything from the time I was dropped off at my helicopter until the Super Bowl two weeks later."

Smith's biggest fear -- killing someone other than himself in a helicopter crash -- was something his wife tried to calm, even while her husband was unconscious. She told him over and over that no one died in the accident.

"I knew that was very important for him to know that." she said.

The couple is grateful to the emergency medical service community and their friends and acquaintances on South Whidbey for helping them get through the aftermath of the crash. Norma Smith said, the nurses who worked aboard the helicopter with her husband were "amazing" in their support. A nurse from Airlift Northwest stayed with the Smith family at the hospital to help them understand what had happened. This sort of attention was something she and her husband had always seen from a different perspective.

"To be on the receiving in was nothing short of miraculous," Norma Smith said.

Even with all the support in the hospital l, she said she is grateful to finally have her husband at home. Now the couple is focusing on Steve Smith's return to normal life. Norma Smith said he has a good start.

"His recovery is miraculous," she said. "He was the epitome of good health prior to the crash."

Able to walk now, though gingerly with the aid of a cane and not for long, Smith is taking it slow. His recovery process includes physical therapy at Providence Hospital in Everett three times a week and exercises at home. His elbow is going to require two more surgeries and he is in pain.

"My left arm always hurts and my body aches like I have the flu."

But he's not complaining. He knows it could be much worse.

"In rehabilitation, I see people who have lost an arm or a leg and I know how very lucky I am," he said.

On his porch Monday, Smith watches as an Airlift Northwest helicopter flies low overhead. This happens frequently these days.

"They come by several times a week and wait for me to step out and wave," he said.

A man who would clearly prefer to be back at work, Smith said he wants to fly again and hopes he will be able to pass the physical required for pilots. He may be grounded for now, but he said he hopes it's not permanent.

"I love to fly and be part of the lifesaving process. I hope I can fly again."

For now, the attention is on getting well and on family. The Smiths have four children Natalie, Lauren, Nate and Lindsay. Lindsay and her husband, who live in Hawaii, are expecting their first child --Steve and Norma's first grandchild -- later this year. The birth of that child will probably Smith's first good excuse to get aboard something that flies.

"We hope to go to Maui in May to meet our first grandson," Smith said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to make a ruling on the cause of Smith's helicopter crash.

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