NEWKIRK, N.M. - A medical helicopter flying to pick up a patient crashed into the side of a New Mexico hilltop early Thursday, bursting into flames and killing all three crew members on board, authorities said.
The helicopter was flying from Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe to Tucumcari when it disappeared from radar at 2:48 a.m.
It went down near Newkirk along Interstate 40 about 135 miles east of Albuquerque and about 30 miles from Tucumcari.
Ranch workers found the wreckage on the rocky, northern side of a mesa after authorities called and asked them to look around the area.
"It crashed and burned," said ranch manager Phil Bidegain. "No survivors .... Everything burned except for the very end of the tail."
Bidegain said a ranch cowboy he called to help him look for the craft told him he was awakened by a sound but went back to sleep because he didn't know what it was.
"When he got up he could see the flames," Bidegain said.
Hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado confirmed all three people on board were killed. Their identities were not immediately released, but he said the CareFirst crew was well-known at the hospital.
"These crew members were our colleagues, our friends and our neighbors," the hospital said in statement. "Our hearts, and our prayers, go out to the loved ones of these extraordinary individuals, who were committed to saving lives every single day."
The Federal Aviation Administration said the cause of the crash was unknown, although the National Weather Service said there were low clouds and gusty winds in the area at the time.
"The combination ... likely led at least in part to that crash," said Brian Guyer, a meteorologist at the NWS in Albuquerque.
He said there might have also been some rain as storms had moved through the area earlier.
Kansas City attorney and medical helicopter safety expert Gary Robb says the aircraft are also difficult to fly.
"Helicopters don't glide," he said. "You must pay attention every second. If you don't, they are dangerous."
He said helicopters crash at a rate 40 percent higher than small, fixed-wing aircraft. And medical helicopters crash at an ever higher rate.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate.
Bullhead City, Arizona-based TriState CareFlight LLC owned and operated the helicopter, said company marketing director John Cole, who was traveling to the crash scene and could not immediately comment further.