Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why I created the Memorial Lights ...

Memorial Lights - Air Medical Memorial 2013
My name is Mark Mennie, a Canadian professional photographer, who has been granted the privilege of entering and working in the United States, while specializing in air medical photography for over 10 years. My photography career basically began in high school as part of the yearbook staff, which in turn led me to Alberta College of Art and Design graduating at the ripe old age of 21. By 1991 I had my own studio, shooting portraiture and commercial projects. It was not until 1994 though, that a local air ambulance in Calgary, decided to bring on a couple of commercial photographers to create patient portraits to match their stories in a new fundraising calendar. I was granted the opportunity to be a "third rider", and after my second mission with the Edmonton Base on September 25, I was hooked. I continued growing my mission experience over the years with the Alberta based program, but then in the summer of 2002, with the assistance of two lawyers and three trees, I was granted a O-1 Extraordinary Ability work visa. Just like Justin Beiber, but a lot less controversy.

Through the years, as I have developed my photography relationships with AAMS and air medical clients across the United States, I took a keen interest in how the community and media were interpreting and observing the tragic accidents that were sadly occurring way too frequently. I watched many different ways as to how the community and industry were reacting and their measures to change technology, safety procedures and implementing customized forms of Crew Resource Management. I have always applauded the community for all of their multi-layered efforts and I even took in the 2009 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, DC to understand more.

As a sidebar and what has become a very important aspect in my continued development as a "visual artist" was my continuous attendance at Burning Man in Northern Nevada. Perhaps unfairly tainted by early "burns in the 1990's", my attendance since 2006 showed me a special environment of how art can merge with the community, and how light can also be developed to carry a message.

Through the years, my experiences and some very difficult personal strife, I many times turned to my air medical friends to give me strength when I needed it, a set of ears when I had to talk, and at times even opened up their homes to me. Asking how could I personally give back to a community that had given me so much, I began working with the Survivors’ Network and found such strength and courage in their stories. Using my artistic vision, I helped to create the first ever Survivors Network Calendar in 2012, which depicted not only the tragic air medical losses, but the triumph to overcome adversity as a Survivor or as a member of the community.

At the same time and as a member of the AAMS Communications and Public Relations Committee, I worked with my fellow members to develop a simple slide show, that played in a loop, visually recognizing our fallen through simple, but powerful still photos and names. This slide show spawned The Memorial Room, which has become a silent place of reflection at the busy AMTC. AAMS' continued support and encouragement through the whole process has been very appreciated.

During this time, I had also noticed plans of an Air Medical Memorial.  It was a monumental project, being headed up by Steve Sweeney, and the premise of it really got my creative wheels spinning. In response, I decided to call a simple meeting, in the Memorial Room at the conclusion of the 2012 AMTC in Seattle to discuss what we could do "further" at future AMTC's or other locations. I extended an invite to my friend Temple Fletcher, program Director of REMSA Careflight, and many ideas were bounced around including Temple's suggestion of a Japanese Lantern release at the 2013 AMTC. From that meeting that included Alex Farnsworth and several key and supportive members of the Air Medical Community, I ran with the much simpler idea of small electronic tea lights. They took less space, were economical, would not be left in the environment or flight paths as well as having room on them to write the name of every person we had lost. I raffled off three of my photo prints at a California Air Medical Safety Day, that Temple had coordinated, and suddenly we had a budget to purchase 381 tea lights. 

The Lights have many meanings to me. They of course represent every individual we have lost. Alone, one light proudly memorializes a person and their eternal spirit. Three hundred and eighty one however, present a strong, but silent message about safety. Perhaps just as powerful as a 75 page NTSB report or FAA Safety Directive in my eyes, but as an artist, the most impactful way I can make a stand and show solidarity. The lights are a way to build awareness in the air medical community, as well as a special “Thank You” to the US Air Medical community that continues to support my professional work and vision.

The Lights first debuted at the Air Medical Memorial, the night before last year’s sunrise ceremony. Assisted by Temple and Alex, we perhaps were the only three that actually witnessed their debut, but we all knew this was something truly special. A now iconic photograph of Alex with the Lights was captured and the rest has been history. The Lights then made their appearance at the AMTC, on the beach of Virginia Beach, VA in October of 2013. This time I had asked musician and friend, Greg Hildenbrand, if he would like to provide musical accompaniment to the beach setting. After agreeing, Greg in turn invited two fellow musicians Tom Judge and Craig Yale to join him. So, after sunset on the beach, the lights were handed out to a growing group of AMTC Attendees and randomly placed on the beach. At moonrise, Greg, Tom, and Craig appeared with their guitars, fiddle and flute as the crowd reflectively listened. Greg's original song, "Never Forget" also debuted that evening and can be found here.  My blog description is here: It was a truly magical evening and tribute.

Looking forward, I need to state that the Lights' appearances are to be somewhat random, with the location of their unveiling being announced only a few days prior. They will always make an appearance on the Sunday night of the AMTC, and they are meant to adapt to the setting that each "AMTC host city" in which they visit. 2013 was the beach and for 2014 something unique has already been scouted in Nashville. They could suddenly appear at twilight during any air medical safety day or conference. They will make another appearance this year at the AMM on Thursday night, June 26th. Two fold this appearance is meant to also assist Steve Sweeney and his dream. Perhaps in the absence of bricks and mortar at this time, The Lights help to build the vision, that Sweeney and his dedicated group of volunteers have.

These are the reasons I created the Memorial Lights.


Mark Mennie - Photographer

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Simple Rock

This afternoon I walked the Air Medical Memorial site with my daughter Megan. I was there to see what preparation may be necessary for the upcoming ceremony in June. The experience of visiting the site is always very moving to me and I find myself reminiscing. There was the day my brother and I found the site, the day we learned that the land was generously donated to the memorial, our groundbreaking, and the remembrance ceremonies that followed. This is also the place where countless lifelong friendships have begun, and families have found significance and solitude.

At the center of the site, we have a hole where a flagpole is placed and a flag is raised every year. I was looking to see what had made a home in the hole or if it had filled up with rainwater like last year. It was completely obscured by mud. After finding the hole and clearing the first several inches, I looked for a rock to mark the location.

I found a rather unremarkable rock a few feet away and picked it up. Like most rocks in the area, this was your garden-variety quartz, about 10 inches in length, mostly flat, with groves that run along its length.

As I picked it up, I began to study its features. I’m a sentimental person who will pick up a rock from a place or time I want to remember, and stick it in my pocket. It doesn’t have to be special or unique in appearance, just something from a place I don’t want to forget.

As I wiped dirt from its surface, I noticed that this particular quartz was made up of several smaller structures. It looked as though this rock was made up of hundreds of other smaller rocks. Each a different color, shape and size, and they all fit together perfectly to make this larger rock.

It struck me that this rock is a wonderful metaphor for the memorial itself. You can look at each of the smaller segments as representations of those we have lost and those who have been impacted by that loss.

Just as the molecules of silicon did not choose to be part of this rock, we did not choose to be joined by our common bond that is the result of extreme and adverse forces beyond our control. Together we are stronger. Collectively we choose to remember, heal, repair and live again.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

January 31, 2004

Mandy Shiraki, Danny Villiaros, and Ron Laubacher departed for the island of Hawaii to transport an injured child. The aircraft did not reach their destination, an overdue aircraft EP was followed. I think anyone who knew Mandy would agree, I was sure they would find then on the ground somewhere, a little beat up, but Mandy would emerge with a makeshift splint on a broken leg, carrying Danny over one shoulder and Ron over the other. Mandy was invincible and this would surely give him stories to share for a long time to come.

The wreckage was located February 2 with no survivors. This was devastating news for many people. This was the 2nd air ambulance accident in Hawaii's history. Mandy was (and still is!) a cornerstone in local EMS. Mandy's parents, sisters, daughter, sons, grandson, wife, many nieces and nephews and countless friends miss him deeply.

Danny Villiaros always had a smile on his face and laughed easily. He was a paramedic-firefighter who recently was granted an award for bravery when he unarmed a patient he encountered, protecting his fellow fire fighters from harm. Danny was the newbie at the job, but we have all known him for years. Danny left behind a large extended family, a daughter, son, and also countless friends that mourn his loss.

Ron Laubacher was from the mainland but fit in well here. He was a pilot we enjoyed flying with, one of the "team". He had sharp wit, a sarcastic humor, even as a pilot he understood and participated in our medical humor. Ron was a single social butterfly. He had many friends and always had a lot of fun when he wasn't flying. I teased him I enjoyed living vicariously thru his stories. Ron's family and many friends miss him tremendously.

Never Forget

~ Alexandra Farnsworth

Sunday, January 8, 2012


I never cease to be amazed about the people who have come into my life since losing my best friend in an air medical accident March 8, 2008. One such example is Jason and Jen Haynes.

Jason contacted me about a position with our flight program when we first started up. When we first talked he and his wife were still on the main land. As I can recall, we emailed back and forth and then had a phone conversation or two. He sounded like a nice guy with a southern accent (not very common around these parts) and he had very strong work experience. Jason and his wife, Jen, were going to be in Hawaii and they wanted to stop by to check out the program. When they came into town I showed Jason and Jen around. One of our aircraft was named “The Lena”, in memory of Marlena. I felt compelled to explain to them the relevance of the name as well as our company’s dedication to safety. It had been less than a year since the accident; I suppose the level of my anguish was apparent despite my attempts to remain professional. 

I felt confident that Jason would be a great asset to the company as well as a good fit with the crew. However, I was disappointed to learn that they had decided not to settle in Hawaii just yet but may return after living out of country for a while.

I’m not sure why but we seemed to have an instant connection. They would send an email periodically just to say hello and ask how my English Bulldog Petunia was doing and I would keep up with their adventures by reading their blog. I was thrilled when they told me they were ready to settle in Hawaii. Unfortunately I had made a decision to make a change in my career path and left the program shortly after Jason started. Through the assistance of social networking and the Internet we managed to keep in touch over the next few years.

Jason and Jen returned to the mainland and Jason is working with another flight program. We got to see each other again at AMTC in Florida. His hair was a little different, but it seemed like nothing else had changed. I missed him this year in St. Louis but was happy to receive a phone call from him recently. He told me about an e-magazine that Jen had started. He said she was working on a piece about flight nurses and she wanted to highlight the Air Medical Memorial by sharing my story about Marlena. I am always excited to talk about Marlena or the Air Medical Memorial and associated organizations, so of course I said yes.

After reading the article and reflecting on the recent phone calls with Jason and Jen I had an epiphany. I was astounded when considering all of the truly special people I have met since losing Marlena. Of course I would give ANYTHING to have her back, these people have been a blessing to me in so many ways. In addition, the opportunity to be involved with organizations that are working to make positive changes in our industry has made me feel more in control and less of a victim as well as help me deal with all of the pain and anger of losing a best friend.

I would really like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all of you, who whether you know it or not, have been a blessing to me. Thank you!!!

Never Forget, Be Vigilant, Fly Safe,

Monday, December 26, 2011

Medical Helicopter Crashes in Florida with 3 Onboard

Dr. Luis Bonilla, David Hines and E. Hoke Smith
Three people, a pilot and two medical personnel, lost their lives monday morning when their helicopter went down. The aircraft was en route to the Shands at University of Florida in Gainesville. The flight, which originated at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville at 5:45 a.m., did not have a patient on board.

The accident site is located on the Clay and Putnam county line near Palatka in Northeast Florida.

Memorial page honoring the crew
Dr. Rupp/Mayo Clinic Message
Pilot in Mayo Clinic copter crash had spent life flying, son says
Mayo Clini Rremembers Dr. Luis Bonilla
Mayo Clinic Remembers David- Hines

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

No injuries reported in helicopter crash

No one was injured in a helicopter crash north of Rock Springs, Wyoming early Tuesday evening. At the scene, Sheriff Rich Haskell said Undersheriff Craig Jackson was on Yellowstone Road about 3 miles north of the city when he saw a helicopter circling west of the roadway around 6 p.m. He then observed the helicopter drop straight to the ground from a relatively low altitude.  Jackson investigated and found the craft to be a Guardian Flight helicopter with five people aboard, none of whom were patients. None were injured in the crash. Haskell said federal officials are being notified and will be in charge of the investigation. He said he planned on releasing additional information on Wednesday.

Information from: Rock Springs Rocket-Miner

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Air ambulance crash kills three

William Didier, John W. Bialek, and Ilomae Bialek
On Monday night, November 28th, a medical airplane operated by Trans North Aviation crashed near Riverwoods Illinois en route to Chicago from Jesup, Georgia.  The pilot, William Didier, patient John Bialek, and his wife Ilomae did not survive. The flight paramedic and a pilot in traing survived the accident.

Memorial Page Honoring William Didier
Article: Brother Reflects on Life of Pilot