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Grand Canyon mourns losses

By Laurel Morales

Grand Canyon, AZ – It was a calm, clear day when Grand Canyon back country ranger Bill Vandergraff got the call from dispatch to contact the helibase.

VANDERGRAFF: I asked him over the phone was Clausing on board?' He didn't say anything and I sort of barked was clausing on board?' And he said yes. It was just like getting punched in the stomach.

Vandergraff says in his eighteen years at the park he's usually the one delivering the bad news. He's not prepared to receive it.

About sixty people at Grand Canyon are trained to deal with tragedy. They respond to several rescue calls a year. And sometimes that means risking their own lives to save others. All of them felt the blow of the recent tragedy.

In his six seasons at the park paramedic Tom Clausing had gone out on many missions including the well-publicized death of the marathon runner Margaret Bradley who died of dehydration.

Mark Yeston is Grand Canyon's deputy chief ranger for back country and river and was a close friend of Tom Clausing.

YESTON: It's a big place and lots of big things happen. We don't seem to go too far between some sort of tragedy happening here. Of course a lot of good things happen as well. When these happen doing the particular type of work we do it's particularly hard.

Chief of emergency services at Grand Canyon Ken Phillips says they're used to tragedy at the park but this hits home.

PHILLIPS: We do see people lose loved ones but they're always strangers. And now suddenly we're in the uncomfortable situation of losing our fellow professionals and it's devastating.

Back when Phillips started his career at the park more than two decades ago he flew his first helicopter mission with pilot Tom Caldwell. Phillips says he was a very smooth and safe pilot.

PHILLIPS: There's lots of tricky landing zones that we've landed at over the years. He was very competent at what he did and always very cautious in the decisions he made. There were many times he backed off landing in conditions that were too hazardous.

AMBY: Bring in sound of helicopter approaching.

Jay Lusher is the helicopter program manager at Grand Canyon National Park. He watches a chopper land at the south rim helipad, where pilot Tom Caldwell had landed many many times, and where Tom Clausing's vision for the emergency medical program had been realized.

AMBY: Fade out helicopter.

LUSHER: We wouldn't have the EMS program we have today if it weren't for Tom Clausing I know the Grand Canyon helitac crew will continue Tom's legacy with professionalism (crying clears throat).

Tom Clausing was known for his professionalism and perfection as well as his innovative ideas. Many considered him the best including his colleague John Yurchik.

YURCHIK: He was tight he was spot on. He was the best. You wanted to be half as good as he was.

There are a few memorial Web sites that have been set up since Clausing died. People from all over the world - whether they are in the EMS field or were rescued by Clausing - recognize him for his sense of humor and grace.

Bonnie Taylor says she learned so much from working with Clausing. She's the preventative search and rescue supervisor as well as a paramedic at the park.

TAYLOR: There is risk inherent in the job we do. And honestly that is part of what draws us to this job. Tom died doing what he loved I think we would rather die doing what we loved than in a home somewhere when we're 90.

Taylor says the crash remains fresh in her mind but she will continue her career as a paramedic in Clausing's honor and try to emulate his professional, calm nature when approaching her next mission.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales at Grand Canyon.