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MERCY FLIGHT FUND-RAISER SOARS

More than 550 Western New Yorkers partied on the shores of Lake Ontario in the Town of Wilson on Sunday afternoon for a fund-raiser benefiting Mercy Flight.

Mercy Flight is a helicopter unit that responds to on-scene trauma calls from southern Canada to Pittsburgh, and is an increasingly common craft in the local rural areas. Most recently, Mercy Flight arrived on the scene of a deadly car crash on Cambria-Lockport Townline Road Thursday night. Stephen W. Siuta, 20, of Lockport, was pronounced dead at the scene, but the rescue chopper flew the driver of the other vehicle, who was charged with DWI, to Erie County Medical Center with several fractured bones.

The man, 48-year-old Thomas J. Jeffree, crossed the center line and struck Siuta's vehicle head-on, officers said. He was listed in serious condition Sunday. But the fund-raiser -- an outdoor party featuring live music, seafood, cocktails and an auction with skydivers flying overhead and a Toronto skyline for a backdrop -- also celebrated the lives Mercy Flight has saved.

Among the festivalgoers was Eileen Kelchlin, a former patient who was hit by a truck going 40 mph while jogging in Wilson four years ago. With several head injuries and fractured bones, Mercy Flight airlifted her to ECMC. The fund-raiser was Kelchlin's brainchild.

"I got a ride from Mercy Flight -- they thought I was dead," Kelchlin said. "They saved my life, they absolutely saved my life. The number of rescues here in Niagara County in the past year has really been phenomenal."

Based in Hamburg and Olean, the 24-hour rescue service answers more than 600 calls each year.

Tickets for the first-ever event sold out in a week and a half and netted $40,000 for the nonprofit service, by far the year's largest fund-raiser, according to officials.

"We're having a blast and we love giving it up to Mercy Flight," said Doug Day of Wilson, who said he sees Mercy Flight hovering above all the time. "We're very thankful that they're able to help us."

Many residents of the rural New York suburbs, living miles of winding road from a hospital, said they have to rely on Mercy Flight for immediate medical attention. Richard Sturges, a manager at Waste Management in Porter, said the company just built a helipad for Mercy Flight on "leftover" property to benefit the community.

"We just had certain unused areas, it's just sitting there and we thought, 'Why not give them a helipad?' " Sturges said. "Hopefully, they'll never have to use it."

e-mail: jmalarkey@buffnews.com

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