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BISMARCK, N.D. — An air ambulance on its way to pick up a patient crashed shortly after taking off in North Dakota, killing all three people on board, and military officials involved in the response said the plane may have broken up in midair.

The twin-engine Bismarck Air Medical airplane took off at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday and crashed shortly after in a field about 20 miles northwest of Bismarck. Air traffic control officials lost contact with the plane about 11 p.m., county spokeswoman Maxine Herr said.

CHI St. Alexius Health and Bismarck Air Medical said in a joint statement that the pilot, a paramedic and a registered nurse had been heading to Williston to pick up a patient. The statement did not provide their names.

"It is a sad day here for both of our organizations," Kurt Schley, president of CHI St. Alexius Health Bismarck, and Dan Schaefer, operations chief for Bismarck Air Medical and Metro Area Ambulance Operations, said. "We are grieving for the family members of those who were on board."

The Morton County Sheriff's Office, Civil Air Patrol and Air Force Rescue Coordination Center based at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida located the crash scene around early Monday using radar and cellphone technology, Herr said.

An analysis by the Air Force team indicated the plane might have broken up at about 14,000 feet, and "that corresponded with what they found on the ground," said Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Sean Johnson.

He said he didn't want to speculate on the cause. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration were investigating. FAA records show that the Cessna 441 turboprop was built in 1982. Bismarck Air Medical is listed as the registered owner.

Dan Schaefer, Bismarck Air Medical and Metro Area Ambulance operations chief, said the crash leaves Bismarck Air Medical with two aircraft, with which "we'll be fine."

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Schaefer also said Sunday's crash is "extremely rare."

"Never had it happen," he said.

The weather from 11 p.m. Sunday to midnight Monday, as observed at the Bismarck Airport, had low hanging clouds and light snow showers moving in, said Nathan Heinert, meteorologist with the Bismarck National Weather Service. He also said visibility had dropped to 5 miles.

Gov. Doug Burgum issued a statement Monday expressing condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the victims.

"We are deeply saddened by the news of last night's airplane crash that claimed the lives of the pilot, a paramedic and a registered nurse — individuals who dedicated their lives to saving the lives of others," he said. "We are forever grateful for their service."

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Jack Dura of the Bismarck Tribune contributed to this report

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