Florida Airmen save lives on the Last Frontier

by 2nd Lt. Leslie Forshaw
920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

3/22/2012 – JOINT BASE ELEMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska  — A Florida Airman who teamed up with the Alaska Air National Guard to aid avalanche victims in Alaska was dragged 20 feet by a wire cable attached to a 22,000-pound helicopter, twice, through the snow while holding an injured patient on the side of mountain March 18.

The decisive action of the helicopter’s flight engineer to cut the cable when the snow blinded aircrew realized what was happening below, prevented injury.

Wasting little time for fear of additional avalanches, Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Darrell Williams, pararescueman (PJ), 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., and fellow Alaska ANG PJ Tech. Sgt. Kristofer Abel, employed their wilderness medicine and survival skill set by treating the injured man and evacuating him to safety.

The patient, was one of three men who dug themselves out from an avalanche that buried them while skiing on unprepared slopes after record snowfall.

The 11th U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center alerted the Alaskan Air National Guard’s 176th Air Wing here to help when they got the call.

Imbedded temporarily with the ANG, Williams is serving a three-week tour in Alaska to hone his cold weather rescue skills and augment the ANG Guardian Angel Airmen.

The avalanche struck around 8 p.m. but we got the call around 11 p.m., said Williams who took off in an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter into the cold, dark night with the ANG search and rescue team to search for the stranded skiers who had been buried by an avalanche, according to Reuters.

“We keep around six bags at the ready with different types of equipment for different types of rescues we do out here – it’s a grab and go situation when we get a call,” said Williams. “I grabbed my medical and mountain bag which contains snow shoes, avalanche search equipment and cold weather gear.”

The weather at the time of the call was clear and cold and the terrain, white, for the 15-20 minute chopper ride to the scene of the accident.

The three skiers, according to Reuters, were skiing off of prepared trails in the Chugach Mountains south of Anchorage. Ian Lacroix, 20, was buried with a broken leg, but managed to dig out to reunite with his brother, Nathan, 28, who stayed with him while the third skier, Connor Maloney, 23, made his way down the mountain for help.

Luckily, upon reaching the bottom of the mountain, Maloney “flagged down” an Alaskan State Trooper for help.

“It was really dark but clear when we took off,” said Williams. “We pretty much immediately saw the state trooper who flashed on his car head lights as a reference point on where to start the search.”

At 1 a.m., and about a half mile up the mountain, the Airmen spotted the two skiers. They were waving their headlamp lights at the approaching Pave Hawk.

The lights were immediately visible against the darkness, said Williams. “So we circled a few times to see if we could land.”

Due to the slope of the mountain it was decided to hoist Williams Abel to the snowy ground below.

It took a while to hoist the two PJs down to the awaiting skiers. All reference points for the aircrew were obscured by the dense snow, said Williams. The rotor blades kicked up the mounds of snow below; and because it was such a clear night with no wind the snow just hung in the air like powder blinding the aircrew with a “white-out.”

Finally on the ground, Williams and Abel detached the hoist cable and approached the skiers

“I immediately went over to the patient and medically assessed him to make sure there were no other life-threatening injuries,” said Williams. “The younger brother had a broken leg inside his boot right above his ankle. Williams splinted his leg and gave him pain medication before attempting to move him.

First, Williams and the injured patient were to be hoisted together; then Abel would follow with the patient’s brother.

“Once he [the injured skier] was good-to-go, I put him in a rescue strap and attached myself to him in preparation to hoist,” said Williams.

The PJs were trying to work fast because they were still in an avalanche zone and both skiers had been in the elements for approximately six hours.

Hovering overhead and still encountering visibility issues, the crew was unable to tell that Williams and the patient were connected to the hoist.

In an instant, the helicopter jerked Williams and the injured skier about 20 feet through the snow, but never lifting them off the ground. Then it happened again – another 20-foot drag through the snow.

“We were trying to get reestablished on the ground when the flight engineer, who couldn’t see if we were still attached or not, cut the cable for safety reasons,” Williams said. “We were still on the ground so it wasn’t like we fell from the air.”

The GA Airmen had to reassess their situation. While Williams stayed with the injured skier, Abel trudged through deep, heavy snow to find a suitable spot for the helicopter to land.

Abel found that spot about 100-150 yards from where Williams was caring for the patient and was able to guide the pilots safely to it with his headlamp. Although, the landing zone was treacherous as the Pave Hawk’s rotor tips were within feet of cutting through the rocky mountain.

By now, the routine hoist-in and hoist-out mission had turned into an hour-and-a-half of battling with grim conditions. Working in the deep snow challenged the men, said Williams.

“It was exhausting,” said Williams which led them to use the snow to their advantage.

The two PJs splinted the injured skier’s leg, packaged him up in a hypothermic bag then slid him on a rescue sled to the awaiting helicopter for transport to the hospital.

Onboard the helo, “I was glad to be out of the elements and not sinking in the snow anymore,” said Williams who furthered medical treatment on the patient. “I could get the patient more comfortable, get his vitals and a more detailed assessment ensuring nothing else was wrong.”

On the flight they were raised the patient’s body temperature with a warming pad and they also talked to the brother to find out exactly what happened on the mountain and if there were any medical conditions they needed to know about.

“I’m not really experienced with deep-snow avalanche rescues,” said Williams who gained valuable cold-weather skills from the situation. And the whole time it was in the back of his mind that there could be another avalanche, he said.

This was Williams first day serving on alert with the Alaskan National Guard.

“It was definitely exciting. It was eye opening,” said Williams.

PJs are considered special operators skilled in trauma medicine and conditioned athletes trained in extreme sports, such as mountain climbing and skydiving, to quickly get to combatants wounded on the battlefield and administer life-saving medical treatment. The battle field, however, is only one of the many places on earth PJs are able to save lives. Any terrain where someone needs rescued, PJs are able to get there.

The ANG here performs civilian search and rescues frequently, which is why Senior Master Sgt. Michael Ziegler, Operations Superintendant, 308th Rescue Squadron, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., has been sending Florida pararescue Airmen to Alaska since January.

It produces well- rounded, well-trained PJs, said Ziegler. This is not cookie cutter training from a book or a well regimented training schedule in the cold weather – it’s hands on. They are also able to pick the brains of the experts up in Alaska to get better practices.

“As Williams experienced, the environment and elements make the rescue unpredictable,” says Ziegler. “He had to think outside the box and his performance was spot on.”
The three-week rotations for the Florida Reserve Guardian Angel Airmen started in January and will continue through September. There are a minimum of two GAs per rotation; and even though on alert, they still train, said Ziegler.

This is not unlike the job objective when deployed to a war zone.

“The only difference between what the PJs are doing in Alaska and what they do downrange [deployed] is that they aren’t trying to dodge bullets,” said Ziegler.

The ANG Guardian Angel Airmen have a phenomenal facility to work out of – everything is up to date, said Ziegler. “They are an amazing group of guys; hardcore.”

“We’re getting a lot out of it by being up there and so are they. By augmenting them we’re allowing them to prepare for an upcoming overseas deployment, and take some well-needed crew rest. And we’re getting remarkable experience,” said Ziegler. “Relationship building is huge between the rescue forces.”

The Guardian Angels from the sunshine state are honing their life-saving skills on the Last Frontier. While they do so, they continue to save lives and live by their motto, “These things we do, that others may live.”

For more information on the 920th Rescue Wing, visit their website and Facebook page.

Editor’s note: Some data in this article was compiled from a March 18th Reuters story

Cathleen Snow, Capt., USAFR
920 Rescue Wing Public Affairs
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