Maine bear researcher recounts helicopter crash: ‘The last thing I felt was … that I was going to die’
ISLAND FALLS, Maine — Lisa Bates knows her recurring, nagging thought makes little sense. She’s lucky to be alive, after all. She survived a helicopter crash. She dragged the injured pilot out of the wreckage, then hiked out of dense woods to find help.
She is, some might say, a hero.
Still, she keeps thinking of the tree. Fixating on the tree. Wondering about the tree.
“I want to go back to the site — I know it sounds stupid — to figure out what tree [we hit],” the 27-year-old Belfast woman says, leaning forward in a chair at her aunt’s camp on Pleasant Lake, where she’s recovering from her injuries. “Because I remember seeing a tree, and I remember it looking like an ash tree. And I really want to know.”
Bates was working as the assistant project coordinator of a Unity College bear study last Wednesday when the chopper she was riding in crashed. She and Ed Friedman — who were working together for the first time — were trying to locate a signal from a bear that had been fitted with a radio collar.
The duo took off from Waterville at 4 p.m. After cruising toward Burnham and checking out some bald eagle nests, they received a faint signal from the bear’s collar. Not long after that, they had tracked the bear to some dense woods.
And not long after that, something went wrong.
Bates remembers the chopper losing power.
“I just said, ‘What’s happening?’” she recalled. “[Friedman replied] ‘I don’t know.’”
Then the chopper was spinning. The trees were getting closer.
“The first tree that we crashed through, the first limbs, I remember that,” Bates said. “And I remember being really, really scared. And then, really, really sad. And something else. And then black.”
Waking up in a nightmare
Friedman, 58, is a volunteer pilot for LightHawk, a nonprofit group that provides gratis flying services for conservation organizations across the nation.
The flight was the first undertaken as part of Unity College’s bear research project, which was announced in March. Field work began in May when Bates and others trapped black bears and fitted females with collars. The goal: to add data to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s long-term bear research while providing training opportunities for Unity College students.
Bates explained that in some cases, finding a radio-collared bear from the ground can be very difficult. Taking advantage of the chance to track a bear from the air made sense, she said. And with flight costs surpassing $100 an hour, the free flight offer by LightHawk was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.
After nearly catching up with the bear she was tracking, Bates said, the helicopter crashed through trees from a height of 50 to 60 feet. At one moment, the craft was spinning. Then falling. Then dark.
Bates now thinks she was unconscious for about 45 minutes. And when she woke up, nothing made sense.
“I recognized that I was in the woods, in some sort of a crash, and I was freaking … out,” Bates said. “I didn’t remember being in a helicopter. I didn’t remember setting foot inside a helicopter. I didn’t remember who Ed [Friedman] was. I didn’t remember what LightHawk was.”
She also doesn’t remember removing her four-point harness, or climbing over the still-unconscious Friedman.
But when Bates saw her telemetry gear and her personal camera, everything came rushing back.
She knew why she was in a helicopter. She remembered the ash tree. And the bear.
“I was like, ‘Ed! We’re alive! Holy crap!’” Bates said. “Once I recognized my surroundings, and what happened, it was like pure happiness. I was like, ‘I cannot believe.’ Because the last thing I felt [before the crash] was this complete, indescribable, terrible sadness that I was going to die.”
Armed with that “pure happiness,” which Bates attributes to adrenaline, and shock, and … well … relief, she got to work.
Getting out of the woods
Bates said she doesn’t remember assessing her injuries, but says she must have done so. Her leg was sore and bleeding — a dime-sized puncture wound in her left thigh caused that — and she had cuts and bruises elsewhere. Her jaw was sore, and five days after the crash, it’s still bruised.
But she could stand. She could walk. And she could haul the seriously injured Friedman from the wreckage.
“Right by his head, fuel was leaking,” Bates explained. “I’m like, ‘We’ve got to get you out of here.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah.’ And he tried to move and he couldn’t. He’s like, ‘I’m pinned.’”
Bates says she doesn’t remember unfastening Friedman’s four-point harness, but said that at some point, she pulled on the pilot’s belt and turned him over, so that he was lying flat on the ground. Then she reached under his arms and began dragging him away from the helicopter.
“It was real painful on him. His ribs, his hip, his leg, his eye,” Bates said. “I’d be like, ‘OK. 1-2-3,’ and then we’d drag, and he’d try to push with his right foot.”
Making slow progress, Bates said, she moved Friedman about 15 or 20 feet away from the helicopter. She wanted to move him farther, but said the pilot was in so much pain, they stopped.
Bates says she has since learned that Friedman suffered a fractured and dislocated hip and compound fractures in his ankle, and said the pilot was quite sure he had broken ribs as well.
After helping make the pilot as comfortable as possible, Bates looked at her GPS unit, which was still on. She told Friedman what she’d decided to do.
“I just said, ‘The [bear trap site] is six-tenths of a mile northeast. The road runs north-south. And so if I just go east it’s the shortest distance and I’ll just flag somebody down. The sun’s setting. It’s 6 o’clock. So I’ll just put the sun at my back and head east,’” Bates said. “I said, ‘Are you OK with this plan?’ And he said, ‘It’s the only one we have.’”
Bates equipped Friedman with some survival gear — including a granola bar — and took other gear with her. Unfortunately, their cell phones and the helicopter’s radio were inoperable. Then she started bushwhacking, working her way through the woods toward a road. For about 200 yards, she used orange flagging tape to carefully mark her route. Then she heard a car that she thought was nearby, and abandoned her flagging effort.
On Monday, she laughed when recounting that turn of events.
“One of [my] crewmates on the bear den crew gives me crap because I don’t flag heavy and rely on my photographic memory to get me back to places,” she said.
As it turns out, she wasn’t as close to the road as she thought. But she kept walking east, and got to it in good time.
A passing motorist stopped and offered use of her phone. Bates’ first call: Friedman’s wife. Then 911. Then her boyfriend. By that time, others had begun to arrive on the scene.
“Other people started to show up because there’s a girl in the road with blood running down her leg,” she said.
Bates initially wanted to stay on the scene. She handed her GPS unit to a volunteer firefighter who admitted he didn’t know how to use it. Bates told him to find someone who did.
But eventually, she was forced to leave the scene, with assistance.
“I refused the ambulance at first, until the sheriff [deputy] gave me a strict talking-to: ‘You were just in a helicopter crash. You need to go to the hospital,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Yeah. I was just in a helicopter crash.’”
Both Bates and Friedman were taken to a Portland hospital. Friedman is still recovering there, Bates said.
Bates was released later that evening and was back home by 2 a.m. Thursday, according to her mother. Not long after that, she was headed back into the woods, to a family camp, to more fully recover.
Preparation was a key
Lisa Bates is not a wilderness first responder. She’s a bear researcher. On Monday, while relaxing with family members, Bates attributed the experience she has gained over the past five years working on the DIF&W’s bear study group to her reaction after the crash.
“Randy Cross training,” she said when asked if she’d had any proper medical or emergency training.
Cross is the longtime leader of the DIF&W’s bear research group. He’s the one who helped convince Bates that it makes perfect sense to crawl head-first into a bear’s den in the middle of winter, all in the name of science.
And his messages paid dividends last week, Bates said.
“I really, honestly don’t think I would have reacted in the way that I did had I not been in the line of work [that I am],” Bates said. “I’ve never come across anything like this in my life, but working for Randy on the bear crew, there are a lot of situations on a smaller scale [when] you put yourself into where you have to overcome irrational fear and your body’s intense desire to run.”
Bates’ experience with the DIF&W bear study led to her being hired to help coordinate the Unity College project, according to the college project’s coordinator, George Matula Jr.
Bates said when the DIF&W bear crew unwinds at the end of the day, “storytime” is a bit of a tradition. And Cross, the wildlife biologist, is chief storyteller.
“We talk about these certain [potentially frightening] circumstances a lot,” Bates said. “Today when I talked to [Cross], I said, ‘I think all the training finally came to a head, where it finally mattered.’”
But hero? Bates isn’t ready to make that leap. That’s a label for others.
“There was no other choice,” she said. “That stuff had to be done. Ed had to be out of that helicopter. And we had to get out of the woods.”