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Farewell to Airlift Four

Hne was a man's man, a former Marine who had just recuperated from an earlier helicopter crash and pulled his just-healed body back into the pilot's seat.

Another, a flight nurse who could work a set of power tools as deftly as fitting a breathing tube into a critically injured patient.

The third, a tiny sparkplug of a flight nurse who could light up her coworker's days with her infectious laugh.

A crowd of almost 1,500 gathered for a tearful tribute Thursday to say goodbye to Steve Smith, Erin Reed and Lois Suzuki, the three victims of the Sept. 29 crash of an Airlift Northwest helicopter in the waters off Edmonds.

Smith, a Clinton resident, was flying Airlift 4 back to its home base in Arlington after he and Reed and Suzuki had taken a patient to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Mourners at Thursday's memorial service remembered the three lifesavers in a heartfelt ceremony marked by tears and laughter.

"This is a wretched day. No word or song will return those so abruptly taken from us," said Dr. Michael Copass, medical director for Airlift Northwest.

Firemen, policemen, military and medics from all over the Northwest gathered with friends and family of the fallen workers. The crowd of about 1,500 painted a wide array of different colored uniforms, from paramedics dressed in white to Seattle firefighters dressed in black. About 90 flight nurses were present in their blue flight suits, many who traveled from as far as Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

The victims were honored not only for their desire to help others, but also for their engaging personalities.

"It should be a comfort to us to know that Steve, Lois and Erin left us while performing a mission they loved," said Tom Gudmestad, a medical service officer with King County Medic One.

The service had a somber tone, but there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the guests as they greeted and consoled each other. Hugs and tears were plentiful.

Airlift Northwest employees consider each other part of an extended family.

Pastor Steve Pace, whose wife is an Airlift Northwest flight nurse, told the audience that their lives were about self-sacrifice and passion to love and care for each other.

"We live our lives together," added flight nurse Sandy Koopman-Bryant. "We eat, sleep, laugh, cry, with each other."

"We now have three big holes in our family," she said. "Those three holes will never be filled."

Steve Smith had been a pilot for Airlift Northwest since 1988. He also had retired as a lieutenant colonel from the Marines, and was a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

Fellow pilot Fred Riebe remembered Smith, as a friend, a mentor, and a last-minute stand-in as his best man.

"He was my hero. He was the father I've struggled to become and husband I have tried to emulate," Riebe said.

Riebe talked about the guiding principles his friend lived by.

"Steve lived a life of great integrity and held fast to his principles. He cared for God, family, friends, community and his job in that order," Riebe said. "He juggled each with skill and was able to balance them effectively."

Riebe said Smith's legacy will be carried on through his children and grandchildren. "Although he won't be around physically, he will become known to them through all of us."

Smith could strengthen relationships, and listen to others with caring and passion, Riebe said. Within limits.

"Except when he was watching USC play football," Riebe recalled.

At times, Riebe paused, struggling to keep his voice strong and tears in check.

He remembered another memorial service 10 years ago, after his own wife, Amy, had died in the crash of an Airlift Northwest helicopter Sept. 11, 1995 near Bainbridge Island. Amy Riebe was a flight nurse, and died with another flight nurse and pilot in the tragedy.

"And 10 years ago, under identical circumstances, Steve spoke for my wife," Riebe said.

"God bless you big guy. So long my friend."

Erin Reed had been a flight nurse with Airlift Northwest since 1997. Prior to that, she worked as a flight medic in the Boston area and as a firefighter in California.

"She was our professor of life experience," said fellow nurse and friend Koopman-Bryant. "She would walk in and the panic level would drop from 10 to 2 because she always had a handle on things."

"She embodied all of the characteristics of a great flight nurse," Koopman-Bryant said.

Reed was also remembered for her skills with tools and do-it-yourself projects. She was a woman more at home at Home Depot than Nordstrom's, but a skilled nurse that her coworkers joked could intubate a rock.

Lois Suzuki had been a pediatric nurse with Airlift Northwest since 1998. Before then, she worked in many of the nation's major pediatric medical centers.

Suzuki will be remembered not only for passion for humanitarian work, but also for her laughter.

She "had a nine-foot smile on a four-foot frame, and a laugh that most TV shows would pay a fortune to achieve," Copass said.

"Lois reminded us to live life to the fullest," said Liza De Guzman, an Airlift Northwest flight nurse and Suzuki's friend for 14 years.

"What we loved most about Lois was her incredible explosive laugh. It was full and complete and contagious, radiating and shaking the hallways at work," she said. "We will never forget her laughter."

Ronald Lemire, director of inpatient services at Children's Hospital, said he knew the workers from their transports of patients.

"I've never met finer people than the people who work at Airlift Northwest," he said. "We are proud of what they do everyday."

"We'll miss them."

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