Helicopter Maneuvers Below Bridge to Complete Challenging Rescue

RESCUE REPORT

By Tom Vines
Photos Courtesy Deputy Eric Heilman/Mason County Sheriff's Office

On Aug. 17, six teenagers were hiking in a canyon in the Olympic National Forest in Washington state—specifically, an area that had been closed to the public due to its hazardous terrain—when their expedition took a scary turn. The subsequent rescue efforts involved numerous ground personnel and skillful flying by a U.S. Navy helicopter crew.

The first two responders on scene rappelled down to the injured girl and found her condition to be serious and deteriorating. She appeared to be suffering from fractures, possible internal injuries and hypothermia.

Rescue personnel from Mason County fire districts 4 and 6 set up a haul system to bring up rescuers and uninjured hikers from the bottom of the canyon.

After a quick 20-minute flight from Whidbey Island, the helo crew began looking for the rescue site. They had the scene coordinates, but this was a very rugged and forested area. They had been told that the patient was “near the bridge.” However, they were quite surprised to learn that she was actually under the bridge.

The injured girl appeared to be suffering from fractures, possible internal injuries and hypothermia.

The helo crew decided on this strategy: The pilot lowered the helo into the canyon under the bridge. He kept to the south side of the river where there were fewer obstructions. As the helo hovered approximately 40 feet upstream and 120 feet above the river, the crew lowered a corpsman with a litter into the river. The corpsman was directly attached to the hoist and the litter, which hung vertically during the lower.

Flying under any bridge can be a dodgy situation for any aircraft, but there was an additional complication in this situation: The bridge had been constructed at a narrow point in the canyon—a canyon rich with trees that were approximately 100 to 120 feet tall with thick branches ready to shatter rotor blades and impale the helo body.

60 Feet Down
At 1350 HRS, the teenagers were hiking in the canyon when a 16-year-old girl slipped, sliding approximately 60 feet down a near-vertical slope into the river below. She landed under the historic High Steel Bridge that crosses high above the canyon. While two hikers made their way down to the injured girl, the other three stayed put and called 911 for help.

After receiving the 911 call, the Mason County Sheriff’s Department dispatched its first units. The first units arrived on scene at 1415 HRS and included two sheriff’s deputies, along with personnel from the county’s rural fire districts.

The response would ultimately include rescue units from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office, responders from Mason County Fire Districts 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 16 and 18, Mason County Medic 1, the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Search and Rescue Team, and fire crews from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Two of the first responders on scene were fire chiefs from Mason County fire districts 4 and 6. They rappelled down to the injured girl and found her condition to be serious and deteriorating. She appeared to be suffering from fractures, possible internal injuries and hypothermia. It was therefore critical for rescuers to stabilize the girl and extract her from the canyon as quickly as possible.

Because of the hazardous terrain, extricating an injured person from the canyon area is very difficult and can take several hours. Fearing that a ground rescue might not be able to get her out in time, responders called the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station (NAS) for helicopter assistance. Because this is a federal resource to be used to assist a local agency, the Sheriff’s Office had to request permission through the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), located at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

At the same time, rescue personnel from Mason County fire districts 4 and 6 began setting up a haul system to bring up rescuers and uninjured hikers from the bottom of the canyon. The haul system included approximately 600 feet of rope.

Helicopter to the Rescue
Whidbey Island NAS received permission from the AFRCC, followed by the Whidbey Island Commander, to launch the mission. Because the MH-60S “Seahawk” helicopter search-and-rescue unit was standing by in support of military aircraft exercises in the area, the helo crew was able to brief and get airborne in only minutes.

At about 1830 HRS, after a quick 20-minute flight from Whidbey Island, the helo crew began looking for the rescue site. They had the scene coordinates, but this was a very rugged and forested area. They had been told that the patient was “near the bridge.” However, they were quite surprised to learn that she was actually under the bridge.

Flying under any bridge can be a dodgy situation for any aircraft, but there was an additional complication in this situation: The bridge had been constructed at a narrow point in the canyon—a canyon rich with trees that were approximately 100 to 120 feet tall with thick branches ready to shatter rotor blades and impale the helo body. But the Seahawk crew was up to the challenge. After all, the Navy had trained them to deal with such unexpected and difficult situations.

After trying different approaches and discussing the situation among themselves, the helo crew decided on this strategy: The pilot lowered the helo into the canyon under the bridge. He kept to the south side of the river where there were fewer obstructions. As the helo hovered approximately 40 feet upstream and 120 feet above the river, the crew lowered a corpsman with a litter into the river. The corpsman was directly attached to the hoist and the litter, which hung vertically during the lower.

Corpsman on the Ground
Once the corpsman was in the river, the pilot kept the cable slack. The corpsman stayed attached to the hoist cable in case he got washed downstream in the river, which was 2 to 4 feet deep in this area. Carrying a litter and his medical gear, the corpsman began walking through the river ahead of the aircraft and approximately 120 feet to the patient.

During this time, the pilot continued the arduous task of maintaining hover. Throughout the 5 to 7 minutes that the pilot had to hold the hover, there was only approximately 10 feet of rotor clearance on the left and 20 feet on the right.

The corpsman finally reached the patient and those tending to her, which included two local medical personnel. These medical personnel had cleared the C-spine. The corpsman did a quick assessment and also cleared the C-spine.

The corpsman and ground rescuers log-rolled the patient and placed her in the litter, a collapsible-type litter with a metal frame and nylon bed. They then secured her in the litter with four straps.

To prevent a hazardous pendulum swing during the hoist, two members of the ground team helped the corpsman carry the litter back across the river so the hoist could begin from a position that was as close to directly under the helicopter as possible.

The Seahawk crew then began the hoist with the corpsman attached to litter, but now there was one additional problem: The narrowness of the canyon funneled the rotor wash, instead of allowing it to wash out at the bottom, as it would in flatter terrain. This resulted in the litter spinning. Fortunately, this did not have a negative effect on the patient or the corpsman.

It took only about 1 minute to complete the hoist and no more than 2 minutes before the crew had the corpsman and patient on board and secured. The crew then slowly backed the helo out of the canyon the same way they came in.

The victim was conscious and alert, although cold and in great pain.

At 1905 HRS, the crew began the approximately 15-minute flight to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The Seattle Times reported that the girl suffered injuries to her pelvis, ribs and spleen.

Meanwhile, back in the canyon, rescue personnel needed to extricate themselves and the two teenage boys out of the canyon. The boys were not injured but did need assistance. A Washington State Department of National Resources crew working at a nearby fire agreed to come to the site and assist with hauling the remaining people from the canyon.

At 2200 HRS, the Sheriff’s Office closed the operation.

Sources: Information for this report was provided by Sgt. Trevor M. Severance, the search and rescue coordinator and K-9 unit supervisor for the Mason County Sheriff’s Office; as well as members of the Seahawk crew: Lt. Brandon Sheets, aircraft commander; Lt. Scott Zenner (pilot), AWS1 Andrew Worth (crew chief); first class AWS2 Brian Casey; AWC Jeremiah Wilkins (rescue swimmer) and HM2 Richmond Roy (medical tech). Some additional details were taken from a Seattle Times account of the incident.

LESSONS LEARNED/LESSONS REINFORCED:
Sgt. Severance reflected on this incident: “This was a mission where 27 things could go wrong—but nothing did. We did identify the need for a better communications infrastructure and interoperability; continuing education and training together as a countywide response unit; the use of all positions of the incident command system (this mission could have used a planning and logistics officer); and the advantages of standardized equipment for rapid deployment.”

“We have been working slowly toward moving from an ad hoc operation to a formal interagency rescue team. This rescue reinforced this need and the fact that in a rural jurisdiction such as ours, interagency and inter-discipline cooperation is essential for missions such as these.

“The rescue was successfully completed by an experienced and professional crew that had trained to a high level, was experienced in putting their aircraft in difficult places, and was flying in one of the U.S. military’s most capable helicopters. Many other helo crews responding to an emergency may not have the same capabilities. That’s why it is essential that rescuers be familiar with helo resources in their area.

“The Seahawk crew recommends that local responders train with local helicopter crews before an emergency, in a non-pressure environment and preferably in a flat area. In this way, there will be plenty of time to understand the issues they will be dealing with, such as noise, downwash and communications challenges.

“Such training can also help preplan communications between air and ground crews—which frequencies to use and types of radios each group uses.

“The Naval helo crews had previously worked with the Mason County teams, and this helped enormously in pulling off a successful mission despite the challenges.”

Rescue Editor Tom Vines is the co-author of “High Angle Rescue Techniques” and “Confined Space and Structural Rope Rescue.” He operates a rope-rescue consulting group in Red Lodge, Mont.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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