Crews describe rescue of chopper crash survivor

Posted at 2:18 PM, Dec 18, 2015

The shattered wreckage of a crashed medical helicopter was perched precariously on a rocky mountainside and the sole survivor was on the ground immediately below in a spot where he would have been crushed if the debris rolled downhill.

The survivor was suffering in the cold and in severe pain with what paramedics thought was a broken pelvis, and the crashed helicopter was leaking fuel.

"It wasn't a location where we wanted to be, obviously, but that's where the patient was," said an Air Force captain who was involved in the rescue.

He and a second officer described the rescue in interviews with The Associated Press as they recalled how crews successfully removed the injured paramedic from the mountain and transported him to a hospital. The pilot and a flight nurse were killed in the crash Tuesday night on a flight from Mesa to Globe.

A civilian air-evacuation helicopter and an Arizona Department of Public Safety chopper located the crash site about 12 miles north of Superior about two hours after the Native Air helicopter was reported missing. Those helicopters were able to put people on the ground, but they lacked the hoist capability to extract the injured survivor. 

By coincidence, the HH-60G rescue helicopter from the 55th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson was only about 15 minutes flying time away. It was circling above a hospital near Globe where a second Air Force helicopter was picking up a patient to be flown to Gilbert.

When orders came to rescue the crash survivor, one helicopter continued with the original transport mission and the other diverted to the crash site.

There wasn't any place nearby to land, so the helicopter hovered at 20 feet to lower the two rescue officers to prepare the survivor for the extraction, said the pilot, a major.

The pilot and the rescue officer agreed to be interviewed on condition that they be identified by only their rank and first name for security reasons. The limited identification is intended to help keep them from being targeted because of their specialized jobs of flying into hostile territory to retrieve downed aircraft crew and other personnel, said Staff Sgt. Angela Ruiz, a Davis-Monthan spokeswoman.

They were not on a mission at the time of the rescue.

The rescue officer said that when the Air Force helicopter arrived over the site, they could see the survivor on the ground close to the wreckage and two medics were treating him. A Department of Public Safety paramedic was about 150 feet downhill, in an area where the Air Force rescue officers descended by hoist.

The rescue officer said they then climbed the hillside, which had many rocky outcroppings and 7-foot tall bushes and trees, to reach the wreckage.

"They didn't want to move him and we agreed," the officer said. "We determined the best thing we could do was manage his pain and get him out of the situation as quickly as possible."

The National Weather Service said the temperature there was in the 20s at that time.

"I'm sure that patient was on the edge of hypothermia if not already there," the officer said.

Communicating by radio with the remaining crew members on their hovering helicopter, the rescue officers arranged for a basket to be lowered to the spot where the officers themselves had descended. The officer then put the basket on his back and carried it uphill to the crash site.

Meanwhile, the other rescue officer removed brush from around the survivor to make it easier to move him without causing pain.

The responders carried the survivor in the basket about 30 feet to the side. The hovering helicopter hoisted him up and flew the survivor to Maricopa Medical Center.

The captain said he told his wife when he got home that night that he was surprised "how similar everything was to our training."

"It seems like I was out on a training mission, which is what I want for our guys," he said. "The caveat (is) I knew there were real people's lives on the line."