Laser pointer damages eye of air ambulance medic

Laser pointer damages eye of air ambulance medic

Credit: WFAA

An Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter. A medic onboard was struck with a laser and damaged his eye on Jan. 17, 2014.

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on January 17, 2014 at 6:16 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 17 at 11:44 PM

DALLAS  –– A medic aboard a care flight taking a patient by air to St. Paul Hospital in Dallas was shot in the eye with a green laser beam by someone on the ground, the Federal Aviation Administration says. 

An Air Evac Lifeteam flight was taking the patient from Wichita Falls at about 4:35 a.m. on Friday when it occurred. A Dallas Police Department incident report says the medic, Michael Pruitt, sustained “a burn to his right eye” and was “unable to see out of it.” 

Incidents involving laser beam strikes into airplanes or helicopters are surging. The FAA reports 75 cases nationwide this year. Lynn Lunsford, FAA spokesman, says there have been two such strikes in North Texas this week.

The consequences of such laser strikes can be catastrophic. They can temporarily blind the pilot, resulting in loss of control of the aircraft. There is also a danger that the eye itself could be injured. 

"The light energy can produce such a high amount of energy that it actually kills the photo receptor, the nerve cell inside the eye that helps you to see,” explains Plano optometrist Dr. Albert Pang, “And that can cause permanent damage."

Dr. Albert Pang has seen a similar case not long ago, caused by an easy to get green laser pointer. There is no treatment. Vision can recover with time or be permanent. Sometimes there is a partial, but permanent vision loss.

Shooting a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime. The FAA can impose civil penalties up to $11,000 for pointing a laser at a plane. The FBI has the option of bringing criminal charges, with penalties ranging from five years in prison to a $250,000 fine.

Despite stiffer penalties, locating offenders on the ground is proving difficult. Many are kids and pranksters. 39-year old Stephen Francis Bukocs of Portland was charged last year after admitting to pointing green lasers at airplanes at least 25 times “for excitement.”

Closer to home, Kenneth Santodomingo, 22, of Dallas, pled guilty to aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft because he “wanted to see how far it would go.” 

Lunsford calls Thursday's incident involving the Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter medic the most "significant injury we've seen in the D/FW area."

The helicopter had to make an emergency landing at Love Field. The medic himself was rushed to the hospital. Police are hoping to locate the person who injured Pruit and endangered the helicopter and its passengers.

Email jstjames@wfaa.com

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