MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) — A nurse, a paramedic and a pilot died when a medical helicopter crashed and burst into flames in a field in northern Iowa.

No patient was on board the helicopter from Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa when it slammed into the ground just north of Ventura in Cerro Gordo County around 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Butch Kozisek told the Mason City Globe Gazette that he had been startled by the sound of the helicopter flying so low and that he saw “one heck of an explosion” from his home less than a mile from the snowy crash site.

“Me and the wife were looking out the window and wondering what it was, and then the sound quit for about a second or two, and then just a big ball of fire at ground level,” Kozisek said.

The hospital identified two of the victims as employees: nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau and paramedic Russell Piehl.

Hospital president and CEO Dan Varnum said that while the two “fulfilled significant duties, they played a greater role as our neighbors and friends.”

The pilot was not identified. The helicopter was operated by a Lewisville, Texas-based company, Med-Trans Air Medical Transport. The Associated Press left messages with company officials early Thursday seeking comment.

Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa spokeswoman Jodi Ball said the helicopter had been headed to Emmetsburg to pick up a patient. Emmetsburg is 78 miles west of Mason City. Ventura sits 17 miles west of Mason City.

The hospital is cooperating with law enforcement and the FAA in investigating the crash.

Officials used snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles to reach the wreckage.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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