OREGON – First Responders from across northern Illinois paid tribute Friday morning to the three members of a REACT crew who died Monday when their helicopter crashed during a flight to pick up a patient.
Firefighters and EMS personnel from at least 30 area departments, along with police from several departments, escorted the three hearses in a procession from Oregon to Rockford. They carried the remains of helicopter pilot Andrew Oleson, 65, Rockford, and flight nurses Jim Dillow, 40, Shannon, and Karen Hollis, 48, Rockford,
Stillman Valley Fire Chief Chad Hoefle, who organized the procession, said it was a way for the three to complete their mission. He spoke as the procession prepared to leave the Ogle County morgue in Oregon en route to the REACT hangar in Rockford.
“We’re allowing the REACT crew that went down the other day to make their final mission,” Hoefle said. “It’s important for all of us who worked with them to take part in this event.”
Family members of the three also rode in the procession.
Cars lined River Road and onlookers stood at solemn attention as the procession of more than 50 vehicles, with lights flashing, wended its way north.
Oleson, Dillow, and Hollis were on their way to pick up a critically ill patient at Mendota Hospital when the helicopter encountered bad weather shortly after 8 p.m. Monday.
Officials said Oleson had radioed his intention to turn back just before dispatchers lost contact with him. The helicopter crashed in a cornfield in Lee County.
“The helicopter crews are really the heroes when they come in when we need them,” Hoefle said. “When something like this happens, it affects everybody who’s involved.”
Firefighters and emergency responders from Amboy, Ashton, Sublette, and Lanark joined the procession.
Amboy firefighters Tyler Behrends and Tracy Fleming were among them.
“There were a lot of people on the side of the road that showed their support,” Behrends said. “It was a nice gathering of fire and ambulance services and police.”
By the time the procession arrived at the hangar in Rockford, at least 1,000 people were waiting, Behrends said.
After a brief memorial at the hangar, the procession, joined along the way by additional fire departments and ambulance crews, departed for the individual funeral homes.
Dixon City Fire Chief Tim Shipman said that his department and members of the Dixon Rural Fire Department planned to attend a memorial service Wednesday at Rock Valley College in Rockford.
Fire and emergency responders tend to be a “tight-knit” group, Shipman said, and the department tries to attend the funerals or memorials for firefighters across that state who are killed in the line of duty.
“We pay our respects and feel that it’s very important to honor those people in that way,” Shipman said.
Dixon Police Lt. Clay Whelan said some people from his department also planned to attend Wednesday’s memorial.
“We kind of work hand in hand with nurses and first responders,” Whelan said. “We want to show our respect for them and their legacy.”
Amboy and Ashton fire departments said they also would attend the memorial service next week. Hospital officials say the memorial will end with an aircraft flyover.
Rockford Health System has established a memorial fund for the families of the victims.
Federal authorities are investigating the crash.
SVM reporter Tara Becker and the Associated Press contributed to this report.