Mourners gathered at the chapel on Duke University's campus in Durham Wednesday to honor the four victims killed in the September 8 crash of a Duke Life Flight helicopter. Family, friends, and supporters filled the chapel's pews to capacity to hear about the lives of pilot Jeff Burke, nurses Kris Harrison and Crystal Sollinger, and the lone patient on board, Mary Bartlett, herself a retired nurse.
"If we were to combine the number of patients whose lives each of them touched throughout their careers we would fill this chapel at least 60 times over," said Kevin Sowers, President of Duke University Hospital.
Pilot Jeff Burke was a military veteran, who served around the world, including in South Korea, the Philippines, Croatia and Iraq. He retired from the military in 2007 after 24 years of active military service before joining the Duke Life Flight program.
Nurse Kris Harrison earned his nursing degree from Wake Technical Community College, where he met his wife, who is also a nurse. He was an 18-year member of the Duke Life Flight program, a father and an avid sportsman and outdoorsman.
"He enjoyed spartan races, mud runs, camping, hunting and, of course, all things that were N.C. State but he proudly wore his Duke Life Flight suit," Sowers said.
Crystal Sollinger was the other nurse on board the ill-fated helicopter.
Sollinger began her 25-year nursing career with Duke in 1992. She worked in the cardiac step-down unit and then the cardiac intensive care unit before joining the Duke Life Flight program in 2002. Sowers called her the embodiment of the ideal nurse.
"Knowledgeable, compassionate and dedicated," Sowers said. "She was funny, I'm told, at times irreverent, but she was always there for anyone who needed her."
Dr. Gregory Georgiade, medical director of Duke Life Flight, called the crew members of the program "high-end outliers."
"They're special, they live their job, they're the best of the best. They live at the fringes of their practice, they put their reputation, their lives, and their skills on the line to support the patients and the institutions," Georgiade said.
Patient Mary Bartlett, who had cancer, also had dedicated her life to helping people. She had a 30-year nursing career.
"She was funny and yet, her children told me, she could be pretty straightforward," Sowers said. "If anyone came into the room and wasn't doing things right she would immediately go into nurse mode and tell them exactly what needed to be done."
Sowers added, to laughter, "Now we've never met any nurses like that before."
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash. According to a preliminary report from the safety board, witnesses say the helicopter was trailing black smoke before it crashed on a wind turbine farm near Hertford.