Amy Gannon, a local business leader and advocate for female entrepreneurs, and her daughter, Jocelyn — an eighth-grader at Hamilton Middle School — were killed Thursday in a helicopter crash while on a family vacation in Hawaii.
The tour helicopter they were flying in crashed on a mountaintop on Kauai’s rugged Na Pali Coast, killing six people and leaving one missing. There are no indications anybody survived the crash.
Gannon, 47, and Jocelyn, 13, are among three victims identified by police, including the pilot, Paul Matero, 69, of Wailua, Hawaii. The four other passengers are believed to be from Switzerland, police said, but their identities had not yet been released as autopsies were pending.
Gannon was a prominent member of the local startup community and a longtime educator. As a founder of the Doyenne Group, a Madison-based nonprofit created in 2012 to support and mentor women in starting and growing businesses, she worked with co-founder and executive director Heather Wentler.
“Amy was always bigger than life,” Wentler told the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday. “We had a joke that she was the ‘yes’ person and I was the ‘let’s think about it’ person. She said ‘yes’ to every opportunity and individual and never wanted to turn anyone away. She was always striving to help women find their inner badass entrepreneur.”
Amy’s husband, Mike — who was still in Hawaii with the couple’s 16-year-old son, Aaron — called Wentler on Friday night to break the news. It was especially shocking because “she’d been sending pictures all week long of how wonderful their vacation had been,” Wentler said.
The loss was already reverberating through the community Saturday evening. Edgewood College posted a statement on Facebook from interim President Mary Ellen Gevelinger about Gannon, who served as interim dean for two years in addition to a long tenure as a faculty member.
“Amy was such an energetic and positive presence on campus for many years,” Gevelinger said. “Her work empowering women with an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for excellence both in and out of the classroom are her lasting legacy.”
Local tech executive and former Madison Ald. Scott Resnick said on Facebook: “Amy’s undeniable charisma was bold, intelligent, spunky and forthright. She was an advocate for the oppressed, the underrepresented and the underserved. This is a loss for her family, friends, the hundreds of entrepreneurs she touched and the entire Madison community.”
Gannon, who also co-founded the Social Good Network, worked with other area nonprofits supporting diversity and inclusion, and served on many women-led company boards.
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Jocelyn had many friends at Hamilton Middle School and was active with Gymfinity in Fitchburg, Wentler said. As a gymnast, she competed at the regional level, which was “one of the many places you got to see the true Jocelyn shine,” she said.
On her birthdays, Jocelyn hosted fundraisers for worthy causes rather than receiving gifts. “She was a loving, giving, selfless individual,” Wentler said.
“Our community has lost a wonderful young person, and a family is experiencing immeasurable loss,” Madison School District spokesman Tim LeMonds said in an email to parents of Hamilton Middle School students. “Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with Jocelyn’s family. We ask that you keep Jocelyn’s family, friends and our Hamilton community in your thoughts, and that you respect the privacy of the Gannon family at this time.”
The district is opening the Hamilton Middle School library from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to provide a gathering place for grieving students and their parents, LeMonds said.
A support team also will be available when classes resume on Jan. 6 “for students who continue to want and need smaller environments to discuss this loss and associated emotions,” he said.
Given that the tragedy could represent many students’ first experience with grief, LeMonds encouraged parents to “talk with your child about Jocelyn’s passing, and seek appropriate help if needed. Please know that we are here to support you.”
In Hawaii, the accident has ramped up scrutiny of tour helicopter operations, with U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, calling for greater oversight and safety precautions. He blamed the Federal Aviation Administration for not taking National Transportation Safety Board safety improvement efforts seriously and the industry for not regulating itself.
“Tour helicopter and small aircraft operations are not safe, and innocent lives are paying the price,” Case said. “In our Hawaii alone, the industry, while stridently arguing that it is safe and sensitive to neighborhoods, has in fact ignored any sensible safety improvements, instead dramatically increasing in recent years its volume of flights, at all times of day and night, in seemingly all weather over more residential neighborhoods and to more risky and remote locations, at lower altitudes, while completely failing to address ground safety and community disruption concerns.”
The FAA, however, said it conducts random and regular surveillance on all Hawaii air tour operators and ensures companies address any issues, agency spokesman Ian Gregor said. He said the FAA does not have concerns about the industry statewide.
The helicopter company, identified as Safari Helicopters, contacted the Coast Guard on Thursday evening after the helicopter did not return to the airport as scheduled. A search began but steep terrain, low visibility, choppy seas and rain complicated the search.
According to a preliminary report, the pilot said the tour was leaving the Waimea Canyon area, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” about 4:40 p.m., which was the last contact with the helicopter, Kauai police said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.