Doctor Dies After Crashing Copter : Surgeon Had Just Operated at Same Anaheim Hospital Before Taking Off

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A prominent orthopedic surgeon whose private helicopter crashed in a sand and gravel yard Friday died in the emergency room of the same hospital where he had performed surgery just hours before.

"It's a very sad day for us," said Monica Statz, a spokeswoman for Anaheim Memorial Hospital. "It's always more difficult when it's one of our own. He was like family to us."

Dr. Todd Passoff, 43, of Newport Beach had been on the hospital's staff since 1980.

Hospital officials said Passoff had arrived early Friday to perform a 7:30 a.m. knee joint replacement on a 70-year-old patient. Then he had taken off from the hospital's helipad in his private helicopter, a single-seat Robinson R22, en route to the office of the sports medicine clinic he operated in Temecula, Statz said.

A few minutes after takeoff, however, the helicopter apparently developed engine trouble and began spinning out of control above the Foster Sand & Gravel Co. at the northwest corner of Patt and Commercial streets in Anaheim. After a few seconds of hovering, witnesses said, the craft "nosed over" and crashed atop a parked pickup truck, then bounced onto a sand pile.

"It started to wobble and veered to his right," said Skip Mitchell, a diesel mechanic at the concrete manufacturer. "I saw it coming down (and) ran away from it. He was trying to turn, but it was really wobbling."

Pat Werner, owner of Werner Corp. which operates the concrete company, said: "We heard a boom. When we got there we found the pilot in the windshield in a pool of aviation fuel. The guy was thrown through the windshield. His shirt was stuck on the windshield."

Federal Aviation Administration and city Fire Department officials said the cause of the crash is under investigation.

"It looked like he was trying to find a place to land," Anaheim Battalion Chief Steve Magliocco said. "We don't have a clear understanding of what the problem was."

Unconscious with head and chest wounds, Passoff was taken back to Anaheim Memorial in critical condition, where a team of emergency physicians, several of them personal friends of the orthopedist, tried frantically to revive him. Forty minutes later, about noon, he died without regaining consciousness.

"The mood here is very somber," Statz said. "People just feel that it's a tragedy."

Hospital officials described Passoff as a well-liked and well-respected physician who was best known for his innovative treatment of scoliosis--curvature of the spine. A 1975 graduate of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, he was a member of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the American Spinal Injury Assn. He also operated several Southern California Orthopedic Sports Medicine clinics.

"He was very outgoing," Statz said. "He was full of life and very interested in what he was doing. He seemed to love his work."

Robert Sloane, president and chief executive officer of Anaheim Memorial, described Passoff as a "good surgeon" with a busy practice who still had time to socialize with fellow staff members.

"He was very well liked by the employees," Sloane said. "He's been an active member of our staff for 12 years."

Sloane said Passoff had been commuting to work in his helicopter for about four years, the only physician at the hospital to do so.

As word of the accident spread Friday afternoon, several of the doctor's relatives and friends, many of them fellow physicians, gathered in the hospital's chapel to comfort his widow, Elyse. Passoff's offices in Anaheim and Temecula closed early Friday.

"People are very upset," Statz said. "We have an excellent emergency room team, but when something like this happens, it's very difficult."

Times staff writers Mark Landsbaum and Ajowa Ifateyo contributed to this story.

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