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Tragic night turns to celebration

Pilot Joshua Jones mingles with some of the first responders during a Jan. 9 get together for all involved in the helicopter crash. (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press) 1 / 3
Flight nurse Scott Scepaniak (left) was on board the North Memorial Health Care helicopter that crashed on the shore of Lake Winona in September. (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press) 2 / 3
Miles Weske, a flight paramedic, was the most seriously injured in the Sept. 17 helicopter crash in Alexandria. He suffered fractures of his C2 and C3 vertebrae, a liver laceration, multiple broken ribs, a broken sternum, broken femur, broken ankle, collapsed lungs and blood in his lungs. (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press) 3 / 3

The last time many first responders saw North Memorial pilot Joshua Jones, flight paramedic Miles Weske and flight nurse Scott Scepaniak, the circumstances were tragic and the future of the three was uncertain.

On Monday, Jan. 9, first responders again came face-to-face with the three — but this time was under far happier circumstances, as the Douglas County Hospital hosted a get-together for all those involved with the Sept. 17 helicopter crash on the shore of Lake Winona in Alexandria.

Many of those gathered Monday were present during and in the aftermath of the crash, ranging from first responders, to family members, to hospital staff. While Jones, Weske and Scepaniak looked on, members of the North Memorial community recalled that early morning in September. The helicopter, originally destined for the hospital, was forced by deteriorating weather conditions to try to land at Alexandria Municipal Airport. Instead, it crashed in the trees behind a home on Lakeside Drive.

"On that early morning, it was quite a stunning call we got," said Pat Coyne, president of North Memorial EMS, as he addressed the crowd. "We train all the time for things like this. It's part of our industry practice to do that. But you never think it's really going to happen. ... That call came in about 2 in the morning and all the sudden it's like, 'This is the real deal and these are our people and this is really scary.'"

Dan Johnson, director of North Memorial Air Care, expressed his thanks for those who responded to the crash quickly — both citizens and emergency personnel.

"You guys came from a restful night in Alexandria," he said. "People were tucked in their beds in the community here ... and in an instant, life changed. In an instant we had to create heroes of our own. We had to create heroes that didn't know they were going to be heroes that night, people who were in their house and responded to the event. Some of them ran down the street in their bare feet without any shoes on. And those were the true heroes there."

North Memorial CEO Kevin Croston thanked the emergency responders in Alexandria for their teamwork.

"The Douglas County Sheriff's Office was really instrumental in moving things along," he said. "The Alexandria Fire Department was nothing short of fabulous from what I heard, and the Alexandria Police Department also played a role. So it was an overall community effort."

Carl Vaagenes, CEO of Douglas County Hospital, addressed the three survivors.

"I just want to let you know how thankful we are that you guys are here tonight and are able to be with us today," he said. "That night was a tragic night, but this is a celebration."

As for Jones, Scepaniak and Weske? They just wanted to make it clear that the real heroes were all those who responded that early morning.

"They're the ones who deserve to be in the paper, not us," Weske said.

Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a reporter at the Echo Press. She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in May 2015 with a degree in Communication and Hispanic Studies. Journalism has always been her passion, but she also enjoys blogging and graphic design. In her spare time, she's most likely at Crossfit or at home with her boyfriend and three dogs.

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