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Local firefighters, EMS crews pay tribute to Duke Life Flight crew

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Firefighters and EMS crews from the Winterville and Red Oak fire departments salute as one of the hearses carrying a member of the Duke Life Flight crew passes by. The procession was taking their bodies back to Durham from Vidant Medical Center.

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By Beth Velliquette
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Members of city and volunteer fire departments and EMS crews stood silently by their vehicles Wednesday morning as they paid tribute to three Duke Life Flight crew members, who died Friday in a helicopter crash in Perquimans County.

Three hearses carried the bodies of pilot Jeff Burke and nurses Crystal Sollinger and Kris Harrison from the morgue at the East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine at Vidant Medical Center back to the Durham area.

“We embark this morning on the most important mission of our lives, to bring our fallen brothers and sister home,” Duke Life Flight posted on its Facebook page this morning. “Thank you all for your continued prayers, love and support while we carry out this most honorable of tasks.”

The helicopter had picked up a patient, 70-year-old Mary Bartlett, from the Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City and was returning to Duke Hospital in Durham, according to news reports, when it crashed in a grassy field near the town of Belvedere. Bartlett also died in the crash.

Jay Morris, deputy fire marshal for Pitt County, said he received a call from a man in Johnston County, telling him he was trying to arrange for firefighters and EMS crews on the route from Greenville to Durham to come out to honor the flight crew as their procession passed through each county on the way to Wake and Durham counties.

“We started making calls last night,” Morris said. “We had every overpass with a minimum of one fire truck or more.”

Escorting the hearses were blue Duke Life Flight ambulances and their crews, as well as law enforcement vehicles from the city and county agencies, their red and blue lights flashing.

All along Stantonsburg Road, fire trucks and ambulances waited at intersections and parking lots for the procession to pass by, their crews standing at attention and saluting.

The plan, according to Morris, was to have a fire truck on every overpass between Greenville and Durham and law enforcement vehicles and other emergency equipment at each county line to escort the hearses through their counties, Morris said.

The State Highway Patrol even planned to close I-95 as the procession passed over it, he said.

So many agencies wanted to pay tribute that the highway patrol, which also provided an escort and blocked traffic, was concerned that there were too many fire trucks, ambulances and law enforcement vehicles in the procession, Morris said.

“They were eager to volunteer,” he said of all the crews that came out. “I had nobody hesitate when I asked, this is what I need,” Morris said. “The only request is, you let us know where and when and we’ll be there.”

The three bodies were brought to the medical examiner’s office in Greenville for autopsies after the crash, Morris said.

“This is one of the few times that emergency responders can truly honor their fellow comrades that have fallen,” he said.

“Everybody talks about brotherhood but you’re not talking about it; you’re truly showing it,” Morris said.

Contact Beth Velliquette at bvelliquette@reflector.com or at 252-329-9566.

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