There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. ― Maya Angelou
These stories represent the universality of the human response to traumatic events, while maintaining the individuality of each person's response and subsequent journey. These are stories of struggle, courage, and resilience. We hope that by sharing our experiences, we open the door to conversation and help to further understand what it means to "survive" in the air medical and emergency medical response industries. The ultimate goal in sharing these stories is to help prevent incidents and accidents, and to share lessons on how to "survive," should an incident or accident happen. In the words of survivor Michael Hester, "Don't give up."
Survivor Story: Krista Haugen
I’d like to share a personal story and some personal perspectives —my interests are 3-fold: Safety & risk-mitigation, being proactive & ready for an accident should it occur, and finally responding to accidents appropriately. I do not profess to have all the answers, but I hope to give you food for thought, and open the door to thoughtful conversation about some very complex issues.
Flight crews are a unique breed in many ways…we can handle intensely stressful situations and in fact thrive on it. We enjoy the high level of practice, the autonomy, the variety of challenges in this high stress environment, we love flying, and we believe in the mission. When time is of the essence, we can offer a chance to those in outlying areas where before there was none. I am originally from Montana and I currently reside in Washington state…I know the value of air medical transport in these states. This was, and still is in my mind, a great mission and an invaluable service.
When I applied for a flight nursing position in Seattle, it was not without slight hesitation because I knew the dangers of the job. I was an ER nurse in Tacoma when Airlift 1 crashed on September 11, 1995. I attended the memorial service for Amy Riebe, Marna Fleetwood, and Lee Bothwell with some friends who were flight nurses at the time. That left an indelible impression, as this was clearly a massive loss personally and professionally for the staff at Airlift.
In spite of this knowledge, I did not ask anything about safety during my interview. I did not know what to ask, I didn’t know what a “safety” looked like. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
When I was hired at Airlift, I would come to understand the bonds that develop within the flight crews as we stood together to care for the sickest of the sick in the most adverse of conditions. These are the bonds that support our spirits and boost our inner strength as we constantly bear witness to the suffering of others. Drawing upon years of education and experience, we give everything we have intellectually, as well as emotionally, to help strangers in their hour of greatest need. We were bonded by virtually every emotion as we faced the variety of challenges and complexities that this industry presents. It is not uncommon to hear “the people I work with are like family to me” not unlike the police department, fire department, and military who are also bonded by events that others, even your real family, may not understand.
I’d been a flight nurse for five years when we got the call on September 29, 2005. A missing helicopter, three souls on board. Adult nurse Erin Reed, peds nurse Lois Suzuki, and pilot Steve Smith. The next call…a debris field in the Puget Sound. No survivors. We were a close-knit crew…the devastation was immeasurable. We would never know what happened, as a large portion of the aircraft was never recovered.
One month later, on October 28, 2005 I was working at Airlift 3, based south of Seattle. It was anything but a “normal” day at work (if there even is such a thing) because our hearts were so heavy after losing our crew. And our minds were unsettled because of not knowing why. But…they were in the old aircraft, an Agusta Mark II.
On this day we were in a brand new Agusta Power, complete with a terrain awareness warning system, night vision goggle capability and all of the technological bells and whistles. The company had been in the process of replacing the old Mark IIs with a new fleet of Powers. I naively found that to be reassuring.
Our pagers went off for an interfacility transport. An adult male with a leaking abdominal aortic aneurysm from a small town on the southernmost coast of Washington. There is very limited medical care there. This call/flight exemplifies what air-medicine is all about. This is not the place to be with a leaking AAA.
I flipped the “ignore” switch on my heavy heart and went to work. We lifted from our base & were underway. I was focused on the flight itself, at the same time running through the physiology of a AAA in my mind. I began to notice the visibility was getting worse…a thick cloud bank lay low over the hills. “I don’t think we can get through that weather,” our pilot, Ken said, “I’m turning around.” Even though our patient seemed to be in dire straits it wasn’t safe to continue the flight. Ken radioed the communication center to determine if the patient could be brought to a rendezvous point where the weather was better. It was determined that we could meet the patient in Olympia. We returned to base to wait.
Finally our pagers went off to meet the patient and we headed for Olympia. We met on the rooftop helipad & assumed care of the patient. I was relieved that he seemed remarkably stable considering his diagnosis and the fact that time really hadn’t been on his side so far in his transport to Seattle, until now. I was experienced enough not to be lulled into a false sense of security by his initial presentation but my instinct was that this would be an uneventful transport.
So I was completely stunned when, as we lifted from the rooftop helipad, I heard the engine noise suddenly decrescendo and we immediately lost lift and then altitude. I was fully aware that we were crashing before the belly of the helicopter impacted the retaining wall of the helipad and my first thought was “Are you… KIDDING me?” I was in absolute disbelief. As we teetered for a moment my thoughts snapped to Airlift 4…to Erin, Lois, Steve…the devastation of their loss on their families, friends, Airlift, and the EMS community as a whole.
Not that there’s ever really a good time for this sort of thing, but I thought, “This timing is really bad,” and I thought of my Airlift colleagues going through another memorial service, and my friends, and especially my family, as we had already suffered the loss of one of my sisters.
It initially felt like we were crashing in slow motion. I was in the aft-facing seat and had absolutely no idea how far we had to fall. I briefly thought, “What can I do?” but I quickly realized there was nothing…it was the most helpless feeling you can imagine. All I could do was sit and wait for an unknown eventuality and all I could think at that point was, “Please God not now.”
Suddenly the tail rotor impacted the cement building and then the main rotors. We were propelled into the most violent and loud horror you can imagine. As we were falling and ricocheting off the buildings all I could do was try to hang on. The mechanisms of injury flashed through my mind as these massive transfers of energy were taking place. I’d been a emergency/critical care nurse for 15 years and I knew the potential outcomes. Words like “impalement,” “blunt force trauma,” and “rapid deceleration,” bounced through my head as I was waiting for the energy to be transferred to me as the rotor blades were basically exploding into shrapnel as we impacted the side of the building.
I suddenly had the gut-wrenching feeling that there was a distinct possibility that we were not going to survive this...there are no words to describe what that felt like.
So when we finally impacted the ground after what seemed an eternity, I was again stunned but was cautiously ecstatic to realize that we were all alive & I didn’t have any serious physical injuries. I told Ken, our pilot, “We’re okay we’re okay” and he responded that he was shutting down the aircraft. My pediatric RN partner was getting out of her belts as I asked the patient if he was okay. He said he was. I don’t think I even gave a second thought to his AAA (which, incidently, turned out to be diverticulitis…good thing.)
The survival training we’d had was at the forefront of my mind and I knew how to be decisive. Though we were on dry land, it was water survival training that I found to be most helpful. When I was suspended upside down in that underwater cage, I realized how much slack there was in my belts and since kept them cinched as tightly as I could tolerate. Further, we were taught to fight the instinct to bail out of the aircraft immediately and wait until the rotor noise was completely gone. So I waited.
Because of our training I knew how to close the fuel lines, shut off the battery, engage the rotor brake (had our pilot been incapacitated), and egress the aircraft, . Our pilot, Ken, called the comm. center and the Post-Accident & Incident Policy or PAIP was initiated. When the aircraft was silent I asked Ken if I could get out. My door was jammed so I pulled the red Velcro tab & tried to pop out the window. It wouldn’t budge (come to find out you have to pull out the weather stripping as well). So I kicked it into several pieces (which is a great use for adrenalin) and crawled out. The distal tail section of the aircraft was lying across the courtyard and what was left was smoking. A crowd of ER staff had gathered, called 911, & immediately went to work helping Ken get the patient out. When my partner got out she immediately had a syncopal episode. It was a surreal moment when I found myself kneeled over her doing a neuro assessment next to the wreckage of our helicopter. She did come to, thankfully, and the ER staff took over from there.
While I feel I was adequately prepared to deal with this particular accident itself, neither I, nor my organization was adequately prepared for the aftermath. Plus we were all already maxed out by the fatal crash of Airlift 4.
I stood for a moment in the courtyard where we’d crashed and realized I felt nothing. I was completely emotionally numb & I thought that was odd considering what had just happened. I went into the ER to be evaluated as well but found that I couldn’t sit still.
So a couple days later, when my chief flight nurse at the time asked, “What do you need?” I had absolutely no idea.
Responses to traumatic or stressful events are individual and varied and fall on a continuum. Different people cope in different ways. So there is no “right answer,” per se as to exactly how people should be supported. But that is something that individuals and organizations need to figure out, preferably before the need arises because it is extraordinarily difficult to sort all that out in the midst of a crisis.
Surviving survival was something I knew little about. Initially I thought I was okay. Three months later I discovered I was not. The nightmares and sleep disturbances came hand-in-hand, along with terribly distressing feelings of anxiety and a constant sense of impending doom. My unfamiliarity with these feelings produced fear, which only served to exacerbate everything else. Come to find out, there are solid scientific physiologic explanations for this, but I didn’t know that at the time.
While I was SO grateful to have survived the crash without serious physical injuries, I had NEVER experienced anything like this in my life. It was as if my spirit, or light…that thing that makes you you…had disappeared. Fifteen years of emergency nursing and all of the secondary trauma that brings, the recent loss of our crew, and a close look at my own mortality proved to be overwhelming. Being a typical flight crewmember, I was a master of the poker-face and so the magnitude of my distress would go unnoticed, except for those who knew me well. And I did not know where to turn for help. I didn’t know anyone else who’d survived a helicopter crash before. I had heard about a guy named Jonathan, the sole survivor of a crash into the Potomac River, but at the time he just seemed so far away and I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out how to reach him, or if he’d even want to be reached.
I returned to work. But when I had crawled out of the wreckage of the aircraft, I was a changed person. Any naivete or innocence was completely shattered and my trust and faith had been rocked. We eventually learned that the cause for our crash was deemed “pilot error” as Ken had accidently lifted from the helipad with one engine in idle. But the bigger questions, “Why exactly did that happen?” haunts me to this day. There was human error, but there were also system issues at play. Our crash was fully preventable and I was hell-bent on not allowing what had happened to our crew to happen to anyone else. I felt that, since we had all survived, this crash presented a set of lessons handed to us on a silver platter. After all, we had been in the eye of the storm. We had valuable information which we were not only willing to share, we wanted very much to share it so that our colleagues and friends would not have to experience what we had.
My primary concern post-crash was that neither the crash nor the fallout be allowed to happen to anyone again. What I needed the most was to know that lessons from preventable accidents are learned, collaborative solutions are developed and applied, and the information is shared industry-wide, because we are all connected. I soon came to realize that, aside from still reeling from the loss of Erin, Lois, & Steve, my program was in the thick of a financial and PR nightmare after experiencing back-to-back crashes. The organizational turmoil plus my own personal turmoil was taking too large of a toll for me to continue flying.
So nearly a year after the crash, I decided that flying wasn’t in the cards for me anymore and I went from being a member of a very bonded group of professionals caring for others’ injuries and illnesses, to feeling alone in dealing with my own. So beyond the symptoms I was experiencing, I lost the job that I’d loved, lost my direction, lost most of my income, and as a result had to sell my home. Any one of these situations in and of itself is stressful, let alone all of them together.
Finding a nursing job back in a hospital wasn’t as easy as it may seem. There is no hospital in Western Washington that doesn’t have contact with Airlift. So if I left, how could I find a place to work where I wouldn’t constantly be reminded…? I seriously considered leaving nursing altogether.
I finally realized that help was not going to come to me so if I wanted to get my life back on track I was going to have to find it myself. I sought out counselors and psychologists who specialized in trauma, I educated myself, I talked a lot, listened a lot, I read as much as I could searching for anything that would help me find the tools to calm this overwhelming stress response. It wasn’t that I was ruminating or wallowing in this, because God knows if I could have escaped this catecholamine-laden hell I would have, but it is in fact, involuntary…the body’s physiologic response to stress. And rather than attempt to ignore it and let it impact my health, relationships, and career for the rest of my life, I chose to look at it, and learn about it, and find effective methods to cope. By the grace of God and with the support of my family & friends, my spirit came back…but it literally took years. It has taken an immense amount of work to recover from this accident. There is a clear need for resources.
In 2006 I heard of the Alert helicopter crash in Kalispell, MT, my hometown. I called their chief flight nurse and left a message of support for their flight crew. It was the combination of having personal attachment to Montana and realizing the Alert crew would likely experience what I had experienced post-crash that prompted me to call. I heard back from their pilot, who I’d actually graduated high school with, and eventually I heard back from Megan Hamilton. We talked at length and immediately recognized the similarities in the post-crash fallout, though our accidents were quite different. She then paid it forward and contacted Teresa and Jeff after their crash in Kansas, where she'd had her nursing and EMS training. Then we met Jonathan, the sole survivor of the crash into the Potomac River, and so our group is expanding, person by person, and it is in the sharing of these human experiences that healing can be found. Together, we have since created the Survivor’s Network for Air & Surface Medical Transport.
SOLUTIONS: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” George Eliot
There are a plethora of lessons that can be pulled out of each of our experiences that are not meant to be kept to ourselves. I can accept risk of uncontrollable catastrophe—this job clearly has inherent risks…but I can’t accept unnecessary risks and accidents that are preventable or the secondary trauma that comes from being unprepared.
Here’s what I believe worked up to this point:
Education and training build competence and confidence and helps to relieve anxiety even in this type of maximally stressful situation. I felt I was prepared to handle this situation. The things that helped us survive this were:
*Helmets, Nomex, Steel toed high top leather boots.
*Four point restraints cinched tightly
*Hands on survival training: Water, winter, dryland
*Had we crashed in a more remote area, I had a small survival kit on my person and there were additional survival supplies in the aircraft
*Crash simulator experience at AMTC in Reno
*Safety checklists—familiarity with aircraft systems, egress
*PAIP in place—procedures, emergency contacts, etc
*Personal and organizational preparedness for accidents
All of this happened because the program had a proactive approach to safety. And it MADE A POSITIVE & INVALUABLE DIFFERENCE FOR US! What a shame it would be to survive the crash itself, only to die because you were unprepared for what came next.
We were scattered across the country, alone in our unique experiences. Now we’re networking and sharing information, and that has helped us, as well as many across the industry, immensely. Part of industry risk mitigation is breaking free of existing in our own little bubbles and realizing that we are all a community. Accidents impact all of us. Certainly each program and region has it’s own set of unique needs, but we can certainly learn from the experiences of others. Ours was not the first time someone had lifted with one engine in idle in this aircraft. It was a known issue with this particular helicopter.
“Safety is not proprietary.”
The Survivors Network addresses the continuum of Risk Mitigation-Accident Preparedness-Response-and Recovery. It also serves as a venue for people to share lessons they have learned regarding safety and survival.
We identified an opportunity to create something positive from our experiences and between all of us, we found our voice, and we found a place at the table. We know we don’t have all the answers and so we are always looking to network, partner, and collaborate to help create a better future for this industry of invaluable professionals who do incredible work.
KISS THE WAVE:
I recently had the phenomenal experience of rafting the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. Before we approached the big rapids our paddle guide laid out the plan for getting through them. When she finished she said, “You kiss the wave or the wave kisses you,” meaning, when you’re approaching the rough water, you have a plan, you work together, you lean in, dig in with your paddle, and never give up…you kiss the wave…you get through the rough water, and if someone still gets knocked into the water, you’re prepared…you throw out a lifeline and work together to get them to a safe place. Whoever is in the water can choose to grab it or not but at least it was there. Conversely, if you’re unprepared, have no plan, aren’t working together and supporting each other, the wave kisses you…it broadsides you & either knocks individuals out or flips your entire raft in which case you’re no good to each other because everybody needs to be rescued.
Now…I’ve been swimming for a long time and I finally made it to the shore. My raft is long gone, but here you all are in your rafts. We know there are rapids ahead—we’ve seen them and we know what they can do. So we are calling to you now from the river’s edge, “Kiss the wave!”
Survivor Story: Megan Hamilton
From the very first day on the job, I learned a culture of safety and awareness taught to me by my coworkers, my mentors, and pilots. I participated in safety stand downs, survival and aircraft training and prepared for various types of emergencies that could happen while flying. So when the helicopter I was in experienced an engine chip light – turned uncontained engine failure on November 2, 2006, I felt as though I was as prepared as I could have been. As soon as the chip light illuminated, Addison immediately turned around to head back to the hospital. My initial thought was oh, it’s only a chip light- been there-done that on the BKs. It was only after we cancelled with the EMS unit on scene, then dispatch and then the ER, the gravity of the situation quickly became apparent as the engine started making this horrific noise that will never leave my head… I can’t believe this is happening this isn’t how the other chip lights were. I tightened my seatbelt more and remained calm. Addison had enough to do.
Alone in the back, I can only remain calm, not panic… I feel powerless. The noise worsened …more seizing, louder grinding, metal on metal, as though the engine will die at any moment. More eerily calm… I wonder how this will turn out? An many possible scenarios played out in my head. It seemed like an eternity. Then I hear a loud bang that was the engine exploding as we started flying over the nursing home. Then the sensations of an aircraft pitching, yawing…. I watched the buildings, parking lot and parked cars go by very quickly yet it was like it was in slow motion. We were accelerating to the ground. All the while lots of thoughts flipped through my brain- from family to friends to wondering how this will end up, calculating and planning my deliberate exit plans, my hand finds my reference point… As the mayday calls were being made I thought to myself- I hope that I die first, I don’t want to burn to death. I felt the sensation of being pulled down into my seat then slammed forward into my seatbelt…. As I come to I hear people yelling, I can’t figure out why they are yelling and screaming. I realize that we’re upright, looking forward like I normally do in flight. I do my self assessment- crew assessment- we’re all okay.
There is silence for a second, just the turning of the blades nothing else, no engine, I wonder if the blades are still all the way on or did they break? I look out across the snow and see the look of fear and panic on the ER staff, my friends and colleagues, as they are yelling and screaming at us …asking if we are okay, telling us to get out, yelling to us that we’re on fire. What? We’re on fire….??!! Oh Crap, they always talk about waiting until the rotors stop before exiting. As they were yelling that we are on fire the three of us all thought the same thing out loud… fire vs rotor blades. Chuck’s trying to signal to them that we are okay. Then I hear Ad say to get out…. You don’t have to tell me twice, I’m out of here as I tripped -nearly falling over the fence we had picked up along the way. I stepped out of the helipad gate and set my helmet down on the pavement - numb, shaking and in disbelief. I looked back and Ad is still in his seat, I yell at him, and then I run back to the helicopter to make sure he is really okay. Somewhere in the middle of this, the engine fire is put out.
The evening continues to be surreal, lots of phone calls, lots of people in the department, the telling of our stories all over again with each new administrator or coworker who came in that night. God love Steve as he came into the breakroom to hand me a depends and we both smiled and hugged. I listened to the stories of my friends and coworkers as they heard our maydays over the ER radio and then the noise of the impact. I caught small portions of Chuck’s recall of events in the hallway, and my reaction of utter panic and amazement as I heard the phrase “at one point I was looking nearly straight down at the ground and hoping the windscreen would hold knowing it wouldn’t”. How and why we didn’t complete the rotation and flip it over I will never know. I knew we were extremely lucky that night. Just how lucky we were became more and more apparent the next day as we were walking around the grounds with the NTSB investigator. We were finding parts to our aircraft and engine strewn over a huge area. Maintenance found other parts embedded in the brick and on the hospital roof. We hit a car, and then landed in the gravel, mere inches from a cement filled metal pole before skidding forward through the fence. The car gave a little, I don’t think the pavement or the cement filled pole would have been as kind. Addison saved our lives that night, life is a blessing.
I functioned on autopilot for a while and was back on the Fixed wing before my stretch of nights was over. The “shock”, better known to my friends as “Megan didn’t know she fell out of the sky for a while” wore off after a couple of weeks with one particular FW flight request. I began to realize that the flooding of emotions had started- the rollercoaster had begun. How can I have so much conflicting emotions and many of which I had no idea what they were and couldn’t even put a name to? There were times when many of these happened all at the same time. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and it scared me, but I’m a toughie- I can push through this. I really tried to embrace the notion that no one died, we all survived, it was just a little catastrophic engine failure and that it wasn’t really anything to get worked up over. The other 2 people I shared that ride with were doing fine, so should I….
I am the type of person to rise to a challenge, deal with problems, and overcome them. For me, I had to get back on the horse, cowgirl up and move forward. It had been 1 month since the accident and I NEEDED to get back in a helicopter and I NEEDED to see if I can do it- but that was a problem since we only had one helicopter to begin with. If you haven’t figured it out by now, air medicine is a small community. When the chips are down, we have each others back, at least in Montana. I know first-hand the kindness of this community when the neighboring flight program took their only helicopter out of service so that I could fly around and more importantly land- lots of times. I did it, I had gotten back in.
As emergency providers we are adept at putting on the game face to get things done, to care for tragic events and losses. You can be caring and compassionate but you bottle in the sadness, grief, shock, anger until after the call. No one can see you falter or see that you’re vulnerable, or out of control. If we let our emotion take over, we fall apart and can’t help. We are all masters of it; otherwise we wouldn’t be ER nurses, flight crew, or paramedics anymore. Just over 3 months after our accident, we finally got our loaner helicopter.
Again, I had to get in. I remained outwardly calm as I flew around the valley and landed at a few places. Then I needed to travel and land on the same path as we did in Nov. The first time that we landed from that direction, I felt miserable and panic welled up inside me. The Third time landing I felt better, not overjoyed, but at least the panic was mild and I lost the urge to puke. After we were finished and were on our 2 minute cool down, Amy leaned across to me and asked how it went. I told her the truth and she said “If I was your patient I wouldn’t have known anything was wrong at all.” That’s the power of it and the deception of it. Don’t assume that because I wear that face that I mean it.
I had moments the next couple months, the rollercoaster still ever present. I had good flights and bad flights then periods of no flights at all. That was worse, trying to prove everything to yourself and those around you and no opportunity to fly. I also had a love-hate-reality-check relationship with those seemingly ever-permanent reminders of where we landed that night. On so many levels I wished we went down anywhere else but here. I had to relearn and regain confidence about what a good engine sounded like again and why some noises, events, or turbulence sent me back to that fight or flight space that sucked the life out of me. And so the rollercoaster continued, some days I hid it better then others. But on the Inside I was really thinking I was going crazy. I tried to be strong and resilient, but still had my ups and downs. I still sought help, but there are only so many EAP visits in number per year, there hadn’t been any other precedence where I worked, I had to ask and then re-ask /re-beg for more visits. Workers comp is a beast unto itself and was impossible to get the help I needed and deserved.
4 months after our crash our air medical community and neighboring program suffered the tragic loss of 3 of their team. I felt enormous loss and guilt as to why they had to die? I couldn’t bring myself to go to the memorial service though I mourned them just the same. I hope Paul, Darcy and Vince and the rest of their team can forgive me. It was just too fresh, too real, too painful and I couldn’t handle it.
Finally, at the end of February – 4 ½ months after our accident, the START team visited our program. I didn’t realize that there were others having some issues, as it rekindled old buried feelings, and some were having problems dealing with how our crash was handled, and the losses so close to home had affected us all. After much reassurance I realized I wasn’t going crazy, that though it sucks this is somewhat normal for post traumatic stress. I began to try to understand more of what was happening and how to manage it. Though most times, the stress managed me. I tried to find resources. I relied on my close friends. I sought out another counselor on my own. I continued on through good days and bad. For I am a flight nurse and I will do it.
I flew for a year after my crash. During that time I endured my ups and downs, frustrations and triumphs. I remained as active on the safety committee after the accident as I did before. For a while, I channeled a lot of my energy into the program, and on things that could improve it or raise awareness. There seemed to be a mountain that I couldn’t move. I remained physically active- I swam and cross country skied as often and as much as I could- and when the snow melted- I hiked and biked -a part of me hoping I could out run all the intense feelings and emotions I had at times. I fought hard to gain middle ground between what the hyper vigilance, flashbacks, nightmares and catecholamine-filled moments had taken from me - and sometimes that ground slipped away and I would need to fight some more to regain the lost ground. I was lost…. torn between a job I love and a rollercoaster I hated. I had run out of that helicopter that night a different person than when I buckled in for that flight. The light of who I was before that moment was snuffed out.
Throughout this journey, it has been my friends and family who have supported me in ways I couldn’t begin to explain or thank them enough for. But what helped the very most was that a stranger had taken the time to reach out to offer the kind of support no one else could….Krista had been there….. I wasn’t so alone anymore. Because of that shared connection, that sounding board of oh-crap moments, frustrations, joys and fears and just talking to someone who just gets it on a level no one else can helped me immensely. When I heard of the HEMS crash in Kansas I knew I had to pay that support forward and not just because my roots run deep in that state, but because I knew the kind of resources we need are sometimes hard to find, that others may try to understand, but sometimes don’t get it, It’s the shared experience –the “I’ve walked in your flight boots” that brings a level of understanding that no one else can.
I fully understood that for all of our training, safety days and emergency drills, it really only prepares us for any type of emergency that can come our way while flying. No one tells you how to deal with the after-effects, the post accident fallout and the immense ripple effect on those directly involved in the incident, our families, our friends, our coworkers. It doesn’t matter what type of accident, incident, near miss, precautionary landing or other unscheduled departure from altitude it is. It doesn’t matter the color of flight suit you wear. Sometimes it is the unseen emotional scars that run deeper- (there is no time line, no getting over it, just better at incorporating it into our lives… )
So when the seed was first planted 2 yrs ago that I needed to present my crash at this conference, I had no idea of what that should encompass and of what that message should be - especially since I myself, didn’t fully believe that I had anything to offer.
It has been in my rediscovery, my awakening, my digging myself out of a darkest, deepest hole that I fell into that a light began glow… A light that brought me here today. Though circumstances have put me onto a different path and at a different program, I have renewed passion and faith in this industry and in myself, my purpose and my redefined mission is to focus towards a new stronger, better, supportive future. I know I am there now, for my spark, my light has been re-illuminated.
With the support of Krista and Teresa --- strangers no more--- we have an obligation to make sure no one gets left behind, that the resources we lacked should be in place and available to those in crisis… it is not an option. No person should be an island anymore.
Survivor Story: Teresa Pearson
Sometimes I think it is important to know how a person’s journey into flight medicine begins to understand how it may affect the outcome they may have once they have been through an accident. For me, it started in 1987…when I watched my older brother Terry die from head trauma, a victim of a construction accident. The pain my family felt was immeasurable however, a positive came from that pain for me…I thought a lot about how the flight crew, EMS and ER staff fought to save his life. It became very clear to me that I wanted to become a person like that….one who gives their all to another in need, compassionately without fear, strong. From that moment on, I decided that it would not matter what hoop I’d have to jump through or obstacles I would have to overcome, I would become a part of a flight crew someday, and if I could make a difference for another family so that they would not feel what my family did that day all the efforts would be worth it.
Years ago, I got my chance, and from the first launch, I loved this business and everything it stood for. A fire had been lit under me that was apparent to all that worked with me and I soon found myself not only flying but also educating and marketing our company. When you believe in something that strongly it comes easily when speaking about the benefits a flight service can provide.
At the time of our accident, I flew and was the program development manager. My job was to go into new base areas, help set them up, train and be that contact person for the area EMS agencies and hospitals we would be serving. This put me in a unique position at the time of our accident in that the ripple effect I experienced traveled via myself, family, peers and into the market area. I learned a lot from the market area and their perception of our accident and the truth of the matter is their biggest concerns were “what happened, safety, but most of all are you all okay and what are they doing to take care of you.” I had a physician tell me that he knew that” if I stepped out of the aircraft again at his facility he would know two things, yes it is safe for my patients to fly with them and yes they took care of her.”
August 22nd, 2007 began like any hot summer day in Kansas; I was headed to the base in Dodge City. I had asked a co-worker to hold over for me because I was coming from a conference we had just finished. I got to the base shortly before noon that day. Spoke with the crew and visited about the conference. The request for a scene flight came in shortly after noon. My co-worker, Nicole teased me a little, as we headed to the aircraft “Good timing!” she said. As we got on board the AC, I waved at her as she got into her car. Often thought of how guilty I would of felt if I had been 15 minutes later and put her into my shoes.
As we headed to the scene, we were getting additional information on the patients. It was a five patient MVC with five AC heading into the area…we would be the first in. As we came upon the scene, we began looking at obstacles, speaking with the EMS director, whom we had spent many recent weeks with due to a devastating F5 tornado that had wiped out Greensburg Kansas. His wife (also on the ground) flew full-time with us and was assisting with the scene. He told us that there was one code red patient and he would be sending the other patients by ground and had disregarded the other AC. By now, we were at 300ft…heading into final. Our pilot Richard, stated “got the LZ let’s get it done.” My partner took a picture of the scene, that would be the last “normal” moment I would remember about my flight career from that point on.
It suddenly felt like we hit a wall, I heard a loud shotgun noise over my right shoulder, the AC went limp, I shouted at the pilot, “what the heck was that.” He said to us, “I got this, look left look right.” I recall thinking I do not hear the noises that I normally heard from the AC, moreover the lack there of. We had lost power and were drifting on our left towards the scene. My partner Jeff began saying “people, people.” He was sitting left seat, I was looking almost straight down over his shoulder, people were scattering like ants to get away from us. The terror that we were going to crash on them and kill them ran through my brain. It is funny how true it is that everything passes through your mind as you realize that this may be your last day. My folks, who had already lost a child to trauma, my husband and children. I recall thinking to myself, “This is it.”’ Our pilot had his hands full; there were three lanes of traffic, with multiple EMS agency/Fire on the ground.
The next thing I recall is Richard telling us again, “I got this”, directing us to look left, right. Richard got the AC to go away from the accident site and now I was looking at the ground coming at us. I started yelling” Wires, Wires.” No more than I said that we were into the wires, Richard was attempting to put us between the highways into the median. I saw the first two wires hitting my side of the AC; our tail took out the last one. This placed us coming in off balanced on our left. I remember seeing the ground coming very fast. We hit, our left skid shot out from under the AC. I recall looking forward and seeing the windshield leave the AC, I remember shouting Richards’s name. As I did I looked forward and saw his head hitting his door, bobbing back and forth, I thought he was dead.
By the time we landed, Richard had gotten full power back in the AC. We lifted again, and came back down on our left side. I kept shouting Richards name…he did not answer. The AC blades would hit the concrete and I would see the sky, the blades would then come around hitting the AC tail boom forcing us into the ditched and I would see the ground…that felt like it went on forever. The AC finally stopped moving. I grabbed my partner, and he me…we asked each other if the other was okay. Jeff told me his back hurt; he was wedged in his seat between the door and the ground. I thought I have to get out, get Richard and shut this AC off. The AC was making a whining noise; there were smells and sounds that were not familiar. I went to get out and had pain in my back and could not feel my legs…I knew Jeff and I were not getting out on our own. We both kept shouting to Richard. EMS and Fire were to the AC by now. The EMS Director, Tim opened my door and stated “Thank you God, I thought you all were dead.” He began to call our dispatch to tell them to turn our AC around he needed help, we had crashed we had now become the rescued instead of the rescuers. We saw Richard start to move and dazed he went out of his door past a firefighter, landing in the ditch and holding thumbs up sign to Jeff and I his back was broken.
I had never been so thankful to know he was alive, we were all alive. Jeff and I were separated, he was taken to a nearby airport and flow, Richard and I were taken to tent city in Greensburg, we held hands in the back of the ambulance. Richard kept saying “what happened, I must have been knocked out” I told him, “I thought you were dead.”
We were all flown to Wichita and cared for. I remember looking at my peers as they flew me knowing they could see my fear. This business has never been for the weak but strong in mind and soul, confident. How could I show them my fear? I was a manager, I had to somehow pull it together, for me, for them and knew at that moment I could not. My husband was waiting for me when I got there, he too was a flight medic and knew the risks…I had never been so glad to see him. My mother walked into my room and told me that she knew how important my career was, but she could not risk losing another child and to please think about that before I made any decisions on flying again.
The day we came home from the hospital, a million things were going through my head, now what? Where do I go from here…will I be cleared to fly again by work comp.? How do I heal my family? When we pulled up to the house, our porch was lined with balloons, flowers and cards from many of the EMS agencies and Hospitals…how could I turn my back on them…I had to figure this out.
The months to follow, were full of PAIP, debriefs, and the typical things any service would need to do in this situation. All of us were healing; physically…it was the emotional side that became the challenge. We were interviewed by a local news station before our discharge from the hospital, I recall telling the newscaster that I would be getting back into an AC as soon as my body would let me. I wanted to mean that in every way.
I decided I would just make the memory of the accident go away…push it down and not let it out…this proved to be a bad plan. As the months went on, and our service recovered and moved forward and the smoked cleared…I found myself getting worse instead of better. I felt I could not share many of my emotions with my co-workers in fear I may show weakness or persuade them not to feel safe or choose to not fly anymore. I knew I would not be able to take that. I entrusted a couple of my close friends at our company that I had flown with for years…they knew deep down I was struggling. I could not seem to make the vision of that day go away. A few months after our accident…it really came home to roost…while everyone else had moved on, I found myself awaking in the middle of the night reliving the last 30 seconds of that flight. I knew I had to do something…just was not sure what or were to turn.
Jeff and I were having a conversation one day…we became a source of strength for each other. Jeff became quiet and told me that he needed to tell me something. I asked him what, he said, I do not recall some of the things you do about our accident because I too think I was unconscious for a short time. I looked at him and hugged him and asked him why he did not tell me, he somehow felt it left me alone riding the AC out. I felt anger, not at Jeff but at the fact, I had to remember, WHY did I have to remember? I had tried for months to forget! He (Jeff) and I well be connected forever.
I was in my office one day and my dear friend Mike, stopped by to ask how I was doing. I think he could tell I was not admitting to my issues. He handed me a phone number and told me that he wanted me to call this person, which she too had gone through an accident the year before ours and maybe it would help. The number was Megan’s. I looked at that number for a few days and then called her. Best decision I had made thus far. We talked for hours. Shared our stories and fears. From our meeting , I met others in the industry that had similar stories and challenges. I found this to be a huge source of support. I could talk openly about my feeling without feeling guilty or most importantly weak.
I meant so many wonderful individuals across the nation that were willing to share their stories and lend an ear to me. I began realizing that their truly was not a means of crew resources for support for our survivors, how could we change this? My situation became better and better. I began feeling like there had to be a hidden reason this happened to me…just like the tragedy that happened years earlier with my brother, there just had to be more to this accident for me.
One night as I was sitting at home, the phone rang…it was Megan, she and Krista had an idea…we need to share our stories she said, we need to do this at the AMTC conference and send the message that there are a lot of us out there. Many, even after year’s post accident, had either stopped flying or still carried pain or memories that left them dealing with their issues more and more on their own.
I thought about what they said to me and the next day found myself understanding the purpose of my accident, at least it’s purpose for me. Shortly after the decision to do this lecture was made…I met Jonathan Godfrey…he had a vision…vision zero…in which I know we can all say we support. Jonathan had written an account of his accident, which he was the sole survivor of. He stated in that article that he believed that it was somehow a blessing that he was knocked unconscious, for if he had to remember all the accounts of his accident he would have probably never stepped foot into an AC again. I could relate to that comment and thought about it often. I decided that I needed to attempt not to forget, I needed to somehow use the memory of every second or every minute of that accident to somehow prove to be a benefit for others and myself.
I made the decision to start all over in flight medicine…from the beginning…I stepped out of the management role and back into flying…I needed to remember that passion I once had and face what I feared…because I knew my passion for this business would overshadow my fear. I called Meagan back and told her I am in. If I can be a part of change or somehow reveal the need of support, we need to put into place for our crew members after an accident then it would somehow make sense to me.
What I know is that with the support of my family, friends, co-workers and newfound friends across this nation I have been able to find my way again. I have been flying this past year and again, found the passion that initially started my journey.
We have painfully lost over 100 flight crewmembers to Air Medical accidents since 2001; we have nearly quadrupled that number in survivors. I can not think of any better way to pay tribute to our brothers and sisters we have lost than to make sure we do everything we can to recover our survivors to the best of our abilities, to their abilities, whatever that means, however long that takes.
As in the beginning of my journey, a painful situation created a meaningful and rewarding career, a career that in many ways defined who I was, who I still am.
I hope and pray that the endless memory of our accident will help me somehow help others cope moving forward and hopefully returning to a career that makes since to them, that defines their purpose, recovered and healed. Regardless of what hoop or obstacle I will have to endure from this day forward, if I can help my brother or sister recover then my memories and how they brought me here to you today will have been worth it. Norman B Rice once said, “Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness to pull another hand into the light.” From now out…I will be reaching out for my darkness is gone.
Survivor Story: David Duncan
My name is David Duncan and I'm a Flight Paramedic for Lee County EMS. I've been a paramedic since 1995 and a flight medic since 2004. I have never been a fan of flying so a job as a Flight Medic may seem odd. I like taking care of sick people. This is why I do what I do.
The night of August 17th was like any other night. We were dispatched to a call on Upper Captiva. This is a barrier island and we normally fly all of their patients regardless of the severity of their condition. We crank up and launch and from what I recall, the weather is clear and hot. I was the primary care giver and in the aft facing seat on the co-pilot (left) side. My pilot finishes her radio transmission, that we were a minute out from landing. It’s the last one she'll make. I'm staring out my window and notice something just doesn't look normal. I don't know what is different; I just recognize that something is off.
I glare at the abnormal darkness and tell my pilot, "ya know, I'm scared. I can't see shit out my window". Retrospectively, I said it far too casually and without the respect or urgency it deserved. I wonder if I had yelled, CLIMB, would things have been different. The next thing I remember is somewhere between 80mph and 100mph we strike the water. We rotate and break the tail off of the aircraft. My back slams into the rigid seat behind me and all goes black. I remember opening my eyes and being surrounded by a bright terrifying darkness. The emergency lights are on but the water has been disturbed by the aircraft striking the calm ocean bottom. I clearly recall the first thought which entered my mind; I'm going to die here. I don't know how long it took the cabin to fill up with water. I can tell you that every bit of me which has the ability to breathe was under water as soon as I opened my eyes.
Approximately 2 months prior I had been through helicopter water egress training with my fellow crew members. To this day I credit this training with saving my life. I remember consciously thinking to find a reference point as we had been repeatedly instructed to do. I quickly found the door handle on my right and held it tightly. I turned the handle, attempted to slide the door and it went nowhere. I exited through the side window which had been blown out with the impact. I am thinking of no one but myself and am focused on my survival. I reached the dark surface and immediately gasped for air. I briefly welcomed my safety before realizing I was all alone. I began screaming for Diana, my pilot, and Jason, my fellow flight Paramedic. Within 10-15 seconds of hitting the surface, I heard Diana gasp and scream out to anyone who would listen. I asked if she could see anything and we both called out to Jason. I let her know I was going back down into the aircraft but then Jason made it to the surface. We were now all above water, holding on to the skids as 80% of our bodies were below the submerged aircraft.
My eyes, my mouth, and my throat were burning and my skin had a feeling I've yet to find adequate words to describe and my neck was hurting. We all climbed onto the bottom of our mangled aircraft. We talk aloud and wonder if anyone has even realized we were missing. They have not. The burning, neck pain, and fear is all getting worse. We take turns yelling and signaling. After what seems like an eternity, and turns out to be roughly 45 minutes we see a boat in the distance. We all shine our lights and hope they notice. It gets their attention. We ride with them to shore where an ambulance is waiting. We ride the ambulance to the local trauma center and when we arrive, the doors are opened by my managers. I can feel the look on my face and I know I've seen the same fear and confusion on the faces of my patients. The majority of my co-workers were already at the hospital and it means the world to me.
That describes the night as best as I can recollect. If any of my facts are wrong, it’s not intentional. What happened over the next few days, weeks and months would never have been my anticipated reaction. The nightmares started the morning of the accident. I slept with the help of Flexeril and Vicodin. I’d lie there, close my eyes and was strapped back into the helicopter. Two nights after the crash, I go back to work, flying. This is probably too soon. I'm tired, anxious, and am in constant fear. I take a few days off to regroup. Alone time serves as a catalyst for my discontent and anxiety. I spend hours at the gym but my activity is limited by my neck pain.
At home, when I walk by my pool I become nauseas. I walk the perimeter and get as far away as possible while still remaining outside my house.
I've come to accept that the person who left my hangar that night died when we struck the water. I used to fear there was someone out there I couldn't see. Now I fear there is no one. I've never felt so alone yet had so many people around me, supporting me.
Today marked 14 months since the accident. I talk all the time but there is so much so many don’t know. There are few I share most everything with and just myself who knows it all. At this point in my life, this long past my accident, I expect to be much closer to normal. My sleep is always aided. My neck and shoulders burn and my leg seems weak. I shower, shave, and without fail, I can’t help but cringe at the numbness creeping down my arm. With everything I’ve been through in my life time, for the first time, I feel disabled and limited by my injury. I feel difficulty walking and at times seem to struggle with a few basic tasks.
It took me 6 months to admit the fact that I needed to talk with someone.
Every time I’d fly before the accident, I was somewhat aware that my flight could indeed be my last. It was theoretical. Now as I look out the glass of my helicopter, I sense an accident is inevitable and I sit there waiting for the impact. I know this is not normal nor is it healthy.
At work, I sometimes feel like an outsider and the one remaining reminder of what never should have happened. I feel some look at me and want me to disappear thinking my absence will make our program whole. I feel any attempt I make at improving not just the safety of our mission, but the aftermath should we fail again is viewed as the overreaction of a scared and baggage carrying Medic. If no attempts are made to learn from this, it was just a class taught with no one in attendance. We were the tree that fell in the forest and now we must determine if anyone was listening to the sound we made.
As you hear the words which I’ve written, there might be a temptation to over-analyze or read too much into my emotions. Fight that. Everything you need to know is right before your eyes. I’ve chosen my words carefully, and while they might seem dramatic, I feel drama is required to adequately describe the path I walk. This path is covered in long grass matted down by the feet which have walked it before me. I hope my footsteps will help keep the path clear for those that will eventually follow behind.
When all is said and done, I keep in mind this fact: you may never have a second chance to say good bye. If that is your fate, when the sadness passes and clear thoughts return, make sure their memories are a comfort to those you love rather than doubt. I never want anyone in my life to wonder or fear that there were words left unsaid.
The plus side to all that has happened is that I’ve met some wonderful people who are doing wonderful things. Their presence has carried me when I didn’t feel like walking. I see them smile and it makes me realize that tomorrow can be better. I proceed with the knowledge that I’m where I am in part because of the work they’re doing. They should embrace and gain comfort knowing I still get out of bed every day and if I had tried to attend this dance without them as a date I’d be sitting alone in the corner admiring the music but finding sadness in every note. Just knowing that people were out there, willing to listen who understood what I was feeling and dealing with gave me great comfort.
At this point my ambition is to understand the person I’ve become, it’s all I have and I must do it.
David Duncan, 2010
Survivor Story: Danny Kelly
We have all had those times of “second guessing”-“thinking twice”-“gut feelings.” Do we act on those feelings? If not, why not? I’m afraid for this to actually make a point, I have to start at the beginning.
It was my very first flight after my two-week orientation. I was ready to save someone! I had only had two flights in training but I was a good medic. (Red flag) I walked in the base and the ongoing crew said they had not flown, and that we were “down” because the maintenance guy was working on the helicopter. They did not know why. (Red flag) Just at that time, the radio screamed with a flight request. I was pumped! My partner and I were both ready to go since heck, SHE has had just as many training flights as me! (Red flag) For some reason we both shot to the hanger as the maintenance guy and pilot were deep in the engine compartment. (Red flag) Our pilot insisted that it would “work” and said “lets button it up, I’ve got a flight to take.” (Red flag) We pushed the aircraft out of the hanger.
I remember thinking “is THIS how it is??” (Red flag) In a flash, we were in the seats and buckled in. I looked at the bags and thought, since they did not fly, it must all be there. (Red flag) We just don’t know what we are not taught.. It was a rainy nasty day. (Red flag) By the time the old 206 had hit her wind up, it was really pouring. (Red flag) We lifted only to find out this was a double rotor at a hospital for a van full of kids from a crash. The pilot asked if we could use the radio to find out where the other aircraft was as he had his hands full flying in this “crap”. (Red flag) I looked out my window and realized I could read a stop sign as it passed. (Red flag) We tried to contact the other aircraft but our radio didn’t seem to work on the EMS channel. (Red flag) I was now nervous. The pilot handed back a chart and asked, “Can anyone back there read off the tower locations for me?” (Red flag) We just looked at each other. He said” never mind, we should almost be there.” To make a long story short, we landed-loaded-delivered. It would and should have taken only ONE red flag- We just didn’t recognize ANY of them.
My crash was feb 2nd of 2006 -
We had completed 3 flights previously that day (However, I have no recall of them) I do remember hearing the flight come in at 130 am, and thinking, “That aircraft must be out and we got a call over.” I also remember thinking “I’m so tired.” (Red flag) Flash forward; we are standing by the aircraft. I was thinking I was not comfortable with this flight. (Red flag) I could not put my finger on it, just a feeling. Later I was told I did verbalize my thoughts but was told “Let‘s just go up and take a look.” (Red flag) Flash forward, the rotors are getting up to speed and we lift. I recall seeing the hanger as we lifted. I had a habit as some of you do to place a piece of tape on my leg for notes. Lift times- land times- pt info etc. After looking at the shrinking hanger, I looked back to my leg and awaited info. “Man I’m tired, this is taking forever.” (Red flag) Flash forward; I noted all at once that my window was completely white. Not a “moving” white but a solid wall of white. I think maybe the pilot has turned on the spot. I asked if he could see anything, he said he was blind as a bat. I felt my heart stop. Flash forward a few more minutes. From what I am told, we talked with him and asked, that he keeps the aircraft level and turn around. I don’t remember that. I –DO- remember pulling up real-real hard ...that kind of pull that sucks your helmet down. My first instinct was to look out the front. I saw something coming through the cloud then a split second later, we broke through. I saw road-road-yard-house-house all screaming by.
I always told my wife that crashing would be easy- I would have a few seconds to make my peace, then lights out. I never thought about “waking up” three weeks later. I guess I was speaking some but have no recollection of any of it. I was in a Rehab hospital in an electric wheel chair. I had fractured both tibia and fibulas in many many places along with bilateral tibia platoe crushes. 7 broken ribs-broken scapula/shoulder-pulmonary contusion and of course my melon! For some reason, it was now when I would come back to reality. My “recovery” of course is long- I have not enjoyed any of it. I wish I could just return to that night and hold up just one red flag. Hold it up and WAVE it! Just one.
Change your chances, change your outcome. When you feel a “Red flag” moment, it doesn’t mean to bail and quit. It means to LOOK. Look and ask, look and change. SEE the red flag and call it out. When you take a flight and just for a second you think, “Man, I’m just not sure that…..” Don’t even finish it. SEE that Red flag then turn around and get the answers you need. It only takes ONE red flag...just one.
I would like to close with the words every single Survivor wants to say: Thank you for listening.
Survivor Story: Mike Eccard
My name is Mike Eccard. I want to start with just a little of my background. I am a flight Nurse/Paramedic who has worked in EMS since 1994. I began flying 10 years later. My wife was also an RN/Paramedic with flight experience. When we had our first child, I did what so many first time dads do; I looked for ways to “provide.” And by provide, I mean completely going overboard chasing a bigger check. I stopped living my dream and began working as a weekend, night, float pool CCU/ER/Heart recovery nurse. Granted, I did make a lot more money, and I learned a great deal. However, none of these positions were what I would consider “My Passion.” After a bit of a reality check, and some discussion with my wife and family, I rejoined the job of my dreams. In April of 2010…… I would, once again, get the amazing opportunity to take care of the critically sick and injured while in the air.
Fast forward 3 months……
It was a slow day. I spent most of my time helping out in the ER. Just after our pm pilot swap, we receive our first call of the shift. There is a bit of a golf cart ride from our quarters to the helipad; always a perfect chance to get that quick phone call to the Mrs.
I get her on the 2nd ring, “Hey babe, I’m headed to Okeene. I love you.” “Love you too, fly safe” is how she replied. It’s a call I, or my wife tried to always make pre-flight over the years. You know just a little 5 second exchange or a pre-loaded text for the extremely busy shifts or late night missions. I never would have thought that this was my last conversation to have with my wife before I entered “My New Normal!!”
On July 22nd 2010 my family’s life was completely turned upside down. After this day, nothing would ever be the same.
I am the sole survivor of the 3 crewmember ship that crashed just outside of Kingfisher Oklahoma. My friend and partner, flight nurse Ryan Duke and our pilot Al Harrison lost their lives doing what each considered their passion. I assure you that I do recall the accident (“accident” This word just does not do justice). I’m plagued by these tormenting memories every day and every night. However, the details of the crash are still under investigation so they will not be addressed at this time. I do, however, look forward to the day when those elements can be included so we can further help our culture. I will only say this, “Don’t pay any attention to the medias initial reports.” I wouldn’t think I would have to say that, but I have been inundated by people asking me about “The door.” Again, I’ll say this, don’t put much stock into initial reports and rumors.
After a series of events, we crashed in a field. On our way down, I thought, this is it Mike; going to die. Just prior to the event, I was doing some “in flight preparation” and had just unbuckled. I was ejected through the windscreen an estimated 45 yards based on the initial impact point of the helicopter. After realizing that I was still alive, and praising God, I immediately scanned to wreckage for my partner and pilot. Because the A-star, or what was left of her, had come to rest approximately 15 yard from where I “landed,” I had a very clear view. Ryan and Al were dead.
I would like to point out that I do not have a military background, nor do I stay up late at night watching man versus wild. The trainings referred to below are just that……They were on the job classes, briefings, and day to day safety culture I’ve seen practiced over the years.
Instinct and training flooded my mind. Wait until the blades stop before egress and go towards the nose. Well……… there are No blades, I’m already out, and there’s no nose; check. As I said prior, I am already certain my comrades are gone. I did a brief self-assessment and decided I would be able to take my helmet off without further injury. Besides, at this point, I was completely overwhelmed by claustrophobia. This is a sensation that I had never really experienced this prior to that moment. Several people have asked me to describe how I felt……What claustrophobia was like: I’m figured the word claustrophobia was enough, but for some reason, it’s a common question. So, what I will say this; if panic and suffocation were to have a child……It would definitely be named claustrophobia.
Gotta call for help! I unzipped my right breast pocket and found my cell phone to be intact; I called 911.
Let’s pause for a quick story before we get into the tear jerker stuff:
Everyone used to make so much fun of me for being too cheap to buy a new smart phone…Especially since the latest and greatest something or other had just come out. Plus, anyone that knows me will tell you that I am…….how would you describe it……not very technologically gifted. So, needless to say, albeit they weren’t surprised, I still got a heap of grief for my $20 go-phone from Wally World. From what I had heard, you could just drop one of those fancy cell phones a time or two and they would stop working. Well, mine survived a helicopter crash along and still works to this day. It was, however, the probable cause of my flailed chest, but hey, it worked!!!!!
OK, back to the 911 call:
The 911 dispatcher answers the phone, “Kingfisher county 911.” One question answered. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was. At least now I knew the county. Between precious breaths I state my name, service name, name and tail number of my aircraft, and that we had departed from Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City. I also advised that “we were a flight of one, crew of three, and I am the sole survivor.” I went on to tell the dispatcher that we were flying to Okeene, Oklahoma, but I had no idea where we currently were. I instructed her to contact my comm center because they would have a GPS tracking of our aircraft. I admitted that I was hurt “bad” and have the emergency workers, “look for smoke because there was a fire.” I thought, “Oh God, did I just say fire?”
That’s when it hit me; a fire had started and was growing fast. I should be ok right? Then I noted the wind direction; it was gusting directly at me. I quickly realized this because the smoke was blowing directly in my face.
My attention was then immediately focused something else…. Holy crap, what’s that? Is that the… You see, I didn’t move from that location just because the smoke in my face was making my Shortness of breath worse, or because the heat from the fire was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I moved because the fuel tank had also been ejected from the aircraft and was directly between me and the fire. Once again, I thought I was going to die. I recall thinking, ” What will my family do? My son, my baby daughter; God I love them. NO!!! I just survived a helicopter crash, and I am not going to just lay here and die from that damn thing!”
I attempted to stand and immediately fell to the ground. Something was wrong with my back. Also, every extremity was broken in various way; all except my right leg. While lying on my back, I bent scoot (the name my son gave my right leg) and began to push while using my back of my head to pull. Knee-foot: bend/push; Neck-head flexion/extension. Until about 3 months ago, there was still a bare spot on the back of my head from my mission to get away from the fuel tank. I remember worrying, “What if I’m not going straight?” So, every few strides, I would stop and look toward what used to be my aircraft just to make sure I wasn’t circling. Please God, don’t let this be real. Each time I briefly stopped to survey my route; I was again exposed to the most terrifying and heartbreaking sight I had ever witnessed. During this trek, I heard a noise that is indescribable. I wasn’t a bang; more like a huge whoosh, or the sound of a gigantic pop bottle rocket flying by your head. Then I felt an overwhelming heat. The fire had reached our fuel tank (which had been at 100% capacity on takeoff). Upon hearing that noise, I covered my face; only my mouth was exposed. Hey, I made it…….again is all I remember thinking. The only injuries I received from this were burns to my lips and an inhalation injury due to the burning plastic of the fuel tank.
According to my Super phone, there was fourteen minutes between my 911 call and a call I made once I arrived at the fence. The only reason I bring this up is that I called for help at my landing point; I dialed another number from the fence. In that time, I had made it fifty-two yards scooting on my back with the assistance of my head and right leg. Even with multiple fractures….it’s shocking what a person can do when they are saturated with adrenaline.
I sat up as much as possible and placed one arm of my flight suit on the barbs of the fencing. I figured I would eventually become unconscious, and I wanted fire, ems, someone/anyone to find me. Remember, I’m now over 50 yards away from the crash site. The Oklahoma City flight suits, at the time, were black and teal green. So, I thought maybe I could create some sort on contrast at the fence line if they were to scan the area. Thoughts of doubt come pouring through my mind, “I know I told the 911 operator I was here.” “Didn’t I even say the words sole survivor? God, I hope so.” “Please let them find me if I pass out.”
Under the circumstances, I feel that my mind was fairly clear. I was in absolute survival mode. The customary survival trainings, compacted by all the safety briefings and lectures I had received were no longer mundane, routine, or just procedural teachings. The memories of these classes inundated my mind and influenced my decisions. These simple lifesaving tactics taught should never be overlooked or downplayed. These recollections were my true First Responders.
So, the call I made from the fence line? Well, I did what any good husband would do. I called my wife. Apparently I spoke with our dispatch as well, but I have little recollection of this. I do remember them stating that help was on the way. If I could go back, I’m not sure that the phone call to my wife would have been made. Not at that time; not from that place.
My thinking behind calling her was simple; I began to feel SQ air in my neck and my breathing was becoming incredibly labored. I remember thinking, for the 3rd time, that I was going to die. Before I did that, I wanted to speak to my wife. “Breathing is worse. I gotta tell her I love her one last time. I have to tell her I’m sorry for this. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. We were invincible. We were going to grow old together. My wife later tells me that she was on her way home from Chic-fil-A when she heard the phone ring. She didn’t answer because her cell was in her purse. She dug out her phone, saw the missed call, and figures, “Guess he must have gotten canceled.” So, she called me back and it was easily made clear that unfortunately this was not the case. “We crashed! I’m hurt baby. I love you. I’m so sorry. I don’t know where I am. I love you. Please know that. Tell the kids I love them.” That’s what I remember saying.
She tells it a little different. She recalls that I was completely out of breath and all she could make out was her name and the word “crash.” She knew. While struggling to talk to my wife, I knew breathing was not looking good. I was just reaching for my pocket knife while thinking, “ Please Lord; don’t let me have to try to decompress my own chest…..especially while on the phone with my wife.”
Then, like an answered prayer, the Kingfisher fire department appeared like angels sent from heaven. If you knew what these fellas looked like, you would know I must have truly been in a bind….Sorry guys. They found me! Sweet Jesus, I may actually live after all. I handed the phone to Wayland, the Paramedic. Wayland gave her a brief synopsis of what he knew at the time. Guilt for calling my wife and making her worry immediately set in. This is an emotion that I find myself struggling with to this day.
My incident had many coincidental dimensions. I had known Wayland for many years. We hadn’t really kept in touch over the years, but did run into each other every so often. I had a great deal of respect for him as a medic. He had taken care of my grandmother several years back. Another coincidence; Jim, my father-in-law, his aunt was recently placed in a nursing home. Jim’s task was to clean out and sell her home of many years. Being the best son-in-law ever, I volunteered to clean the house. This was just a few weeks prior to crash. Her house was in Kingfisher and guess who lived next door? It was Wayland! We reconnected and got to talking about old times along with catching up on each other’s current lives. He even helped me clean out that house. Now that’s a good buddy. Along with his help, I also was fortunate enough to have some other friend’s assistance.
These guys just happened to be firefighters with Kingfisher. Other than doing scene flights in Kingfisher over the past several years, I also got to know many of the Kingfisher’s heroes in a very rewarding way. I had just taught a semester of their Paramedic class. This was no ordinary class either. What started out as a favor for a good friend (Randy Poindexter; the Kingfisher Fire Chief) turned into a comradery I had never experienced with another group of students. I had taught for the better part of seven years and this was not only a motivated class, but they were rapidly becoming friends. I was proud to say that they were my students. So, who runs the call of my crash? You got it, it was my longtime friends Wayland, and Randy along with the students I had just taught!!!!!
Comrade Component: This is something in outreach that I had not ever thought of touching on in the past. It will also be a topic in future lectures.
What an encounter for these guys huh? Can you imagine? Picture it from their perspective: Kingfisher Oklahoma, tones go off (sweet, a call), a report of a helicopter crash (heart rate begins to climb), arrive to find a fire and wreckage (getting pretty worked up now), two dead on scene (God if we could have only gotten here sooner), not being able to see the reported survivor (but dispatch said…wait, what was that? I heard my name), scanning the area (There! Over there! Dispatch, we got one. He’s by the fence! What the…..?). Who they found was not only a survivor in critical condition, but someone they know. Their friend, their instructor, their peer.
Who takes care of the champions that so efficiently, diligently, and might I add, successfully provided such skilled care of me? In this close-knit profession, one is bound to respond on at least an acquaintance given enough time. I am believer that we, as an industry fall short in this area. We view ourselves as the caretakers, not the care-takings. Granted, there is always CISD/CISM. These programs are unbelievably valuable when performed correctly and in a timely manner. However, isn’t prevention the best strategy? Of course the Kingfisher Fire Department had nothing to do with the cause of the crash. Thus, they could not have prevented the incident itself. Still, an informed keenness of what I have coined the “Comrade Component” unquestionably adds an entirely new element to the many factors that influence patient management. These include, but are undoubtedly not limited to one’s decision making, approach, rapport, teamwork, mindset, drive, and overall confidence. If there was specific training that guided the rescuer’s mindset to assist in the process of managing a fallen friend, their coping could begin far sooner and all would benefit.
As the instructions from the aforementioned safety classes were brought to the forefront of my awareness, which became instinct, so this too could aid our partners in the tragedies to come. After all, “Failure to prepare in preparing to fail.” ~ John Wooden.
I was loaded in the back of the KFD ambulance. I recall thinking, “Man, I hate being THE patient!” Wayland, Ryan, and Randy were working their tails off. O2 NRB @ 15lpm, Pulse-ox, Bilateral large bore IV’s, cardiac monitor were all promptly initiated by two of them while the other was cutting off my flight suit and doing an assessment. I remember when the IV’s were started thinking Big stick followed by, why do we say that?
I had mentioned to the guys, on more than one occasion that we needed to “get going.” I’m sick here fellas; what’s taking so dang long? Was I losing track of time? Were they ignoring me? Then……Then………….. I heard it; the unmistakable, very unique sound of a helicopter. What? Are you *$#&^@+ kidding me? It must be a news chopper. Nope, it’s landing. OH MY GOD! “Come on now boys, you’re not putting me on that are you?” Wayland and Randy simultaneously began to explain the laundry list of reasons. It seemed like noble rationale….maybe on paper. “Fella’s, don’t you know those damn things are dangerous?” I said. That achieved a laugh out of everyone, including myself. But, I was only half joking. It was more of a nervous, I’m about to blow chunks just to spite you all, kind of laugh. Shortly after, I got the opportunity to meet the flight crew. Jay (pilot) Eddie (Flight Paramedic) and Mary (Flight Nurse) were genuinely, as the cliché says, like angels from above.
With Eddie forever watching over, my chest was needle decompressed by Wayland; after receiving much needed and loudly requesting medications. In hindsight, I think the guys just wanted to shut me up.
Just FYI; pre-medicate if at all possible for this procedure. It hurts! It was, however, a text book needle thoracostomy. A colossal rush of air; I can breathe now!
I was loaded aboard. The flight is relatively muddled; better living through pharmacology. Eddie was the “candy man,” Mary was a goddess and ever so gentle, and Jay completed my mission of getting home safe. There are no words that I have come in contact with that completely encompass what I feel for them. Not only were they compassionate and gentle, they were professional and calm. I needed that. If the “Comrade Component” class mentioned earlier was ever to have role models, it would be them. I discovered that Eddie broke down after turning over care. Understandably so, no one was prepared for this. But, during their mission, no member of that A-team ever lost composure.
Arriving safely to OUMC helipad, I was met by a congregation of family, friends, co-workers, looky loos, media, and ER staff. The Emergency visit wasn’t very well retained by my memory. That’s ok; I was ready to start forgetting every time I began to remember. I do recall some of the activity. The vision of my wife being allowed into the room to stand by my side is equally inspiring and calming, as it is tear-jerking and guilt ridden. Her tender eyes were sympathetic; as only a wife’s (especially one that has flown) can be. The trauma team allowed her to stay. This is most likely since she was exceptional at the chore of sustaining a peaceful environment for my mind during a particularly grueling string of procedures. She did have the backing of some amazing medications, but they only potentiated her affect and not the other way around. The surgeons placed an emergent, breath taking, but life sustaining chest tube and reduced some nasty fractures. I fear, if the roles were reversed, I couldn’t have had that much strength. I pray that speculation is never tested.
One of my many capable ER nurses was Shannon. Keep in mind that I have known most of them for many years. They were also the former co-workers of my partner Ryan Duke who used to be a charge nurse at this very ER. The tension was palpable. On several occasions, various employees would stick their heads in, “just to make sure I was OK.” Shannon is trying with all her might to get my pain under control. Me thrashing about did nothing positive for either my or the staff’s moral. Shannon said, “Mike, we are going to try dilaudid.” Being that this is a level 1 trauma/teaching hospital I overhear one of the many doctors at my bedside telling Shannon to pay particular attention to my respiratory effort. She was given what seemed to be quite the lesson on the possible side effects of this medication.
Enough with the “teaching” already; give me the drugs! She preps the site, tells me the name and dose of the pain medication she was giving; very professional. As soon as she pushed it, I wiped all expression off my face, looked her directly in the eyes, and rolled mine back after one final gasp. The response was not that of the sweet girl I knew. The words out of her mouth most likely made our Chaplain blush. This was, however, the desired effect I was striving for. I glanced at Shannon, made eye contact, and winked while saying, “What’s all the excitement about?” I had answered their question; I was going to be OK. Now everyone could breathe.
I have zero memory of the week that followed. I’m told I was transported to the trauma ICU on a non-rebreather mask that maintained oxygen saturations in the upper 80’s to low 90’S. First thing in the morning, I underwent emergency surgery for my unstable fractured back, pins were placed in my left wrist and thumb, and my left foot was surgically reduced, plated, and screwed. According to the great doctors from trauma services, I was re-intubated in PACU secondary to severe bilateral pulmonary contusions. I “rode the ventilator” for six days.
The 6th day: 0505 is what the clock said. Where am I? Why in the hell am I tied down? I can’t talk. God, I hurt! Why am I intubated? Oh my god, I’m intubated! The crash……the crash. Again, I was devoured by claustrophobia that was nurturing a rapidly growing fear…..then terror. I’m outta here. I commenced to thrashing about as best as I could. This hurts; new plan. The ventilator was within eye shot. I’m on CPAP mode. Easy enough, all I have to do is make this thing alarm and they will come running! Whoever and wherever “they” were. I’ll hold my breath. That seemed like a pretty good approach. Can’t; need air. I have no reserve. I could go no longer than around three seconds. Now, I am petrified! I find myself hyperventilating and gagging. I’m suffocating here. Please help me. Plan B – pressure alarms. I’ll cough like I’m trying to turn myself wrong side out. This was an impressively regretted decision. Why does my side feel like I’m getting stabbed? This was so excruciating, I nearly passed out. One, or a combination, of the many blows I took on July 22nd resulted in all my ribs and clavicle being broken on the right side and half of them on the left. I got to get this thing out! On top of all this, I was wearing some kind of circumferential, hard, plastic brace that extended from the top of my chest to my lower abdomen. It was my TLSO. My wife had the choice of several colors and designs. White, black, grey…… What did she choose? A crazy tie-dyed swirl pattern! I distinctly recall thinking, “Dude, I’m stuck in a marble!!!”
Finally, after biting the endotracheal tube, the alarms squawked. Seemingly all at once, my room was filled with nurses and respiratory therapists. I was taken off the ventilator within a couple of hours. This was a very long couple of hours. The next day was reasonably hectic. I was relieved of a variety of invading types of newly installed plumbing. The hose in my chest was taken out. The Dobhoff feeding tube was taken out; with my assistance. Finally, the straight from hell foley catheter was discontinued. By this time, I was so edematous that I had gained over thirty pound of excess fluid. As I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time, all I could say to my wife was, “Dang honey, I look like the fat guy that ate Mike.”
So, what am I up to now?? Well, I'm on the road to recovery. It is a long and frustrating road, but I am grateful to be on it. I am out of the wheelchair, done with the cane, and barely even have a limp. I battle pain issues from head to toe, but praise God to be feeling anything. I push through each day with the loving help of my wife, kids, family, and friends. The industry as a whole has embraced us and we are forever thankful. Of course, the big question is, "Mike, will you ever fly again?" This is a question that I’m guarded to answer. I will say that I cannot imagine my passion for air medicine ever being extinguished. Since the crash, I have begun to work with the amazing people from the Air Medical Memorial. This project is one of the most heartfelt, selfless, honoring endeavors I have ever witnessed. Just outside of Denver is a piece of land that will be transformed into a spectacular memorial that pays tribute to our fallen brothers and sisters in the air medical industry. I would ask that you follow your hearts and support the Air Medical Memorial in whatever capacity you are led.
Each day and every night that I actually do sleep, I struggle with flashbacks and night terrors. The concern of what is to come physically, emotionally, and financially is ever present. Therapy, medications, and faith that my mind and body will heal offer some comfort. But what would help me most, is peace of mind. Reassurance that my crewmembers didn’t die without reason; without something good coming from this. Hope that what my family and I continue to go through each day and night isn’t for nothing. Guarantee that assets are not in danger and all parties involved in a crash are properly compensated. That our life insurance policies grow with inflation. Never forget, it is us the crew, that is ultimately connected with the public relations during each mission in this field. Taking care of us will spawn genuine opportunities that a T-Shirt can’t touch.
I want to make it clear that I am not here to criticize any company. I only want to help bring to light what myself and my family, along with many like us, deal with on a day to day basis as Survivors. My story is here to help my brothers and sisters of this amazing industry.
Even though medicine is a “practice,” there were some fundamental policies in place based on previous experiences. I was a patient who had gone through a particularly horrid and frightful trauma. The trauma team consulted psychiatry without delay. I was receiving psycholytic medications via the feeding tube even though I hadn’t “asked” for them. This holds true with generally all the treatments, consults, and therapy’s I received. I can’t say this enough; there was a plan. It was a plan that was ultimately tailored to my needs (both physical and mental), but a blueprint in place for me and my family’s needs. A scenario I have often given is that of a nurse and medic that have been launched to a scene: chest pain. This poor guy is “having the big one.” The caretakers look the man in the eyes with all the good intentions in the world, one says, “Hey buddy, what would you like me to do for you?” This gentleman, who is clearly in need of care, both short and long term, says, “Mister, I’ve never been in this kind of a predicament before. I guess just take me to the hospital.” Would you as a manager, medical director, supervisor, co-worker, or yourself as a patient be satisfied with this type of care; even though the intent was noble? The fact is that when the good folks of this business respond to a patient, we have a protocol in place. We have policy. We have a “life-line” that can be called anytime for help. We have proper education and experience to properly handle this type of situation. Certainly, we adapt when necessary, and care is always customized to the patient and their family. This is the industry’s standard of care. This industry needs a standard of after-care for our survivors and their families. This industry needs a plan. The Survivors Network is working diligently to get these types of guidelines recognized, initiated, and be made survivor-specific.
Please support this gift our superb profession has been given. Since their help and guidance, the road I am on seems shorter and much less trying. There is no way I can repay them for all they have done……but I will stand beside them in the future and pay it forward.
Mike Eccard RN/NREMT-P
Survivor Story: Tim Morse
January 17th, 2009 was just another day at MedFlight. We had good weather, the aircraft was in good shape and we had flown several missions throughout the day with no problems. We were dispatched to North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville AR to transport a burn patient to The Regional Medical Center in Memphis, TN. The Burn Center in Little Rock was full and there were no beds available. Our mission started out just as any other. We arrived at North Metro, spent some time on the ground getting the patient ready for transport by moving all drips to our pump and moving the patient on our ventilator. We departed for Memphis with clear skies and had an uneventful flight to Memphis.
We arrived at the Regional Medical Center around dusk. Patient care was transferred to the burn team and we were ready to head back to Little Rock. I remember it being pretty chilly on the helipad as we were pre-flighting the aircraft. There was a slight breeze, clear skies, and we were ready to depart. We were looking at an approximate 1 hour ETA back home. We were on our 3rd flight of the day and were on a 24 hour shift, so we were expecting a long night ahead of us when we arrived back in Central Arkansas.
Flying in Eastern Arkansas at night is very dark. There are not a lot of large cities to provide light. That side of the state is also very populated with ducks and geese. Stuttgart, Arkansas is the duck hunting capital of the U.S. We had cleared Memphis airspace and center had cleared us up to 2000 feet to keep us out of the flight path of other aircraft. It was dark by this time and we had kicked back and decided to rest anticipating a busy night. We were between West Memphis and Forrest City when all of a sudden the aircraft seemed to explode. My initial thought was that we had either hit an unlit tower or collided with another aircraft. What I did not initially realize was that we had just flown head on into an entire flock of white snow geese.
As our aircraft collided with the geese, they blew out both of our windshields and entered the cabin. The doors on the pilot’s side had been blown open when one of the geese struck the door and caused it to give way. Our pilot was struck in the face and was initially dazed from the blow. The other flight nurse was attempting to hold onto the doors and pull them closed. Our drug packs, clip board, and various other items flew out of the aircraft as the doors blew open.
One of the geese was deflected from the back and top of the Lifepack 12 in front of me and landed on the back wall next to my head and struck the ventilator. The noise in the cabin was a loud "roar" as we were in a 120 mph wind tunnel. I will never forget how cold it was. The temperature on the pad at Memphis was 31 F and now we were over 1000 feet in the air traveling at 120 mph which put the air temperature way below freezing. Our pilot ducked down beneath the dashboard of the instrument panel trying to get out of the wind. He had been struck just to the right of his nose. His face was bloody and he had lost his headset upon impact.
I can remember thinking “we are in big trouble” as I could see him ducking down with a bloody face. He was trying to give me a thumbs up to let us know that he was doing ok, but it was difficult to communicate in the midst of the noise, cold temperatures, low light, and trying to figure out what in the world was going on.
I got on our radio, contacted dispatch, and declared an emergency. I advised them that we had a bird strike and we were in the process of looking for a landing site. I could not hear hardly anything that was being said to us on the radio, but I noticed the “busy” light would come on. With this, I at least had some confirmation that our dispatch could hear us. It was dark and we could not see a suitable landing site initially. We were paralleling I-40 and knew that we could not land on the interstate as we would get hit by an 18 wheeler as soon as we landed. I advised our communication center to track us on the GPS because I was not sure how long we could stay in the air. The other flight nurse was trying to help our pilot get his headset back on and to cover with a coat to stay warm. Both of us continued to talk to our communications center trying to keep them updated of our location and status.
Our night duty pilot was bought to the dispatch center by one of our staff members to help with the emergency. He continued to talk to all of us on the radio and tried to guide us to a landing site at the Forrest City's airport.
We were in the air for approximately 8 minutes before we saw what appeared to be a truck stop ahead. We advised our communications center that we were going to have to land and that we felt that the truck stop would be our best option. As we were circling to land our pilot advised that he was starting to experience some electrical problems in the aircraft and we going to have to land right here. We touched down in a field behind the business and shut the aircraft down. I radioed our GPS coordinates to dispatch and advised them to get an ambulance for our pilot. I then went inside the business, called 911 and advised who we were and that we needed help for our injured pilot.
The other flight nurse was assessing our pilot’s injuries and was trying to help warm him and get him out of the cold temperatures. We waited inside the business until law enforcement and EMS arrived.
It was not until I went back outside to the aircraft that I began to realize how much damage had been done. We were in an A-Star 350 that had sustained at least 8 goose strikes to the rotor blades, tail rotor, windshields, and had actually broken a large hole in the nose of the aircraft.
Our pilot was transported to the local ER in Forrest City for evaluation. He was released from the ER at Forrest City so we could be taken back to Little Rock for him to have further treatment of his injuries at our hospital in LR.
About 24 hours after the incident, reality started to set in as to how close we were to being involved in a tragedy. The "What If's" started to emerge. What if our pilot was struck 3 inches higher? What if he
would have been knocked out? What if our tail rotor would have been taken out? What If? What if? I started having thoughts of my wife being widowed with three children to raise without me. I also had thoughts of flight crews from other programs that had been lost. That could have easily been us.
About 24 hours after the incident I really started to experience a lot of anxiety, I was not sleeping at night, I ended up getting up several times at night and would pace around the house trying to calm myself down. I needed some help and somebody to talk to, but was not sure which direction to go and was also conflicted with having to go and ask for help or somebody to talk to. I can remember really trying to evaluate whether I wanted to return to the flight environment.
I was frustrated that there was nobody for me to talk to that knew what I was going through. My medical director contacted me by phone the following morning at my house to visit and check on me. It was 2 days before my director contacted me to check in and see how I was doing. By that time I was still experiencing a lot of anxiety, was tearful throughout the day, and was continuing to replay thoughts through my mind of “what if”. We had tried to contact our family physician for an appointment, but he was out of town. With this, my wife contacted a friend of ours who is a family physician and made me an appointment to go see him and get some help. I met with him and he gave me prescriptions for some medications to help with the anxiety and give me the ability to get my thoughts more organized.
It was 4 days after we had the incident that we finally had a critical incident stress debriefing. Emotions were running high and my frustration with our administration was evident. Very little had been done for the crew members to help get through this or direct us to somebody to talk with. I can remember exploding with anger in the meeting towards our program director in regards to proper safety equipment, helmets, etc. I also grew angrier when I observed her continuing to look at her watch as if she had somewhere to be or was ready to leave.
Oddly enough, members from another flight program were invited to join this first debriefing. Their communications center provided an integral piece of communication during the incident. The hospital chaplain attempted to lead the debriefing, however had obviously never dealt with something to this magnitude. While this debriefing was suppose to be of help, it was so poorly organized and managed I found it to be only a place to vent my anger. There were no answers. There was very little concern for us. Just administration bragging on what they considered to be a successful landing. For me, it was a successful landing, but …
My First Flight Afterwards…
I will never forget the anxiety and stress that I felt the first time I went back up on a night cross country. I was more vigilant than ever watching outside the aircraft for any potential dangers to our crew. As time went on and the missions continued, my anxiety lessened and I was able to continue to work as a flight nurse. The month before this incident occurred, I completed my master’s degree in nursing and was starting to prepare for the boards to become a family nurse practitioner. In February I passed the boards and began working as a Family Nurse Practitioner in April. I continued to fly on a PRN basis for the next 15 months and then gave my resignation.
At the time of the incident, we were not wearing helmets. I had been pushing the idea of requiring helmets to our director for months prior to this incident. I and several other crew members were pushing for Helmets, Nomex suits, and boots to be worn by crew members as this was an industry standard and the recommendation by CAMTS.
I had written an executive proposal with studies in favor of helmets, costs to outfit our crews with helmets, etc. I had actually had a discussion about helmets with our director the day before the incident occurred. The one thing that kept coming up was "it costs too much" and the crew members do not want to wear them.
After our incident and more prodding by several crew members, Baptist purchased helmets for the crew members. Metro Aviation, our 135 Vendor purchased NVG's and implemented their use for crews and pilots. Our aircraft was modified to accommodate this equipment and usage was made mandatory by our pilots. While this was a victory, it was just one part of what I felt was a huge gap in our safety chain that desperately needed to be fixed.
Survivor Story: Michael D. Hester
TIMELINE OF EVENTS OF MY CRASH (DFW07LA171) FROM MY PERSPECTIVE
Here is what I can remember what happened from my perspective from the crash. The crash happened on Saturday July 28, 2007 in Marks, MS somewhere around 02:30hrs (as I remember being told).
I remember coming out of the bathroom verifying with my pilot the flight we had then going back in to the medic’s room to put my boots on. The next thing I remember is it is 6 days later, my neck is hurting, I am wearing a C-collar, my back is killing me (pain 7-8/10), I have a Foley, my right leg is numb and doesn’t want to work very well, I have Lemon-Lime Powerade in my hospital jug, I’m naked (except for hospital gown), and this is not my bed. Not to mention I don’t have my glasses. My prescription at the time was -20 in both eyes with 3 optars of astigmatism. Oh, and I’m crying at the drop of a hat… any hat and I did not know why.
They (everyone) told me I never lost consciousness, that I had a concussion. My injuries included a C2 fracture requiring halo placement, sternal fracture, 3 left rib fractures, L2 fracture, L4 fracture, and L3 burst fracture requiring vertebrectomy and anterior/posterior fixation and fusion.
I was the worst injured on the crash. Found out later that the patient we picked up, 6 months later, got drunk again and wreck her car again in nearly the same place on the same highway… again.
I remember them reiterating those statements while I was adamantly telling them I was coming back. It felt to me as though some didn’t think I’d ever be able to come back, or didn’t want me to come back. My brother Ken, Pastor at First Baptist Church Pontotoc, MS, told me, “Mike, when I was told you were in the hospital that you were in a helicopter crash, I thought ‘he’s probably got a broken leg. He’ll be out for a few weeks, then he’ll be back as good as new. Then, Mike, I saw you. We (the family) weren’t sure you were going to live; much less ever be able to walk again. But when the doctor came out and said that your surgery was a complete success I said Mike’s going back to work. Don’t know how long that will take or what he’ll have to do or go through, but Mike Hester will definitely make it back to work’”. Needless to say that made me cry… yet again.
The timeline of my injuries with my interventions are like this. The crash was early Saturday morning. The vertebrectomy with anterior fixation/fusion was on the following Wednesday. My neurosurgeon holds clinic on Tuesdays and Thursdays so they were going to keep on the vent Thursday for my posterior fixation/fusion on Friday. I awoke sometime during that time to tell a good friend of mine, flight nurse with AEL, and former nurse in that same ICU of Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center, “Nikki, I had a weird dream last night.”
“What was the dream, Mike?”
“I dreamed I was nasally tubed in my right nare, and I tried and tried to pull the tube out and finally pulled it out. Then I tried to get up, but I couldn’t.”
“Mike, you were dreaming. Your nurse who’s bigger than you are had to lay on top of you to keep you from climbing out of your bed.”
The last part of my interventions was the halo placement which was performed the following Monday, a whole 10 days after the crash.
Two weeks in the ICU followed by two days on the floor and I was discharged to inpatient rehab where I began the active task of healing and getting strong enough to go back to work.
I hadn’t been visited by the CISM team as of yet. I had to request it. Thought that was kind of odd. After we talked they said I sounded good to them. I learned some time afterwards that CISM is a red herring at best.
My family told me while I was in the ICU at The Med that the ICU waiting room was filled with people wearing the AEL logo. I remember being visited once, maybe twice, by my fellow crewmembers of my base. However, during my month long stay at inpatient rehab, I was visited by my program director (who I’ve worked with for years as a colleague at the hospital where we both got started), the other medic (who also worked there), the nurse who was also part of the crash, and the pilot. No one else from the base came to visit. I saw colleagues from Arkansas bases more than colleagues from my own base. Personally I don’t think that was very cool at all. Maybe that’s just me.
On the day I was discharged from inpatient rehab I convinced HealthSouth to modify its policy of taking the discharged to their car by wheelchair and allow me to walk under my own power on my walker. I did allow them to have a physical therapist hold on to my belt for safety. However, I walked out of that place on my own two feet.
My PT made me sweat quite a bit. Not only because it physically demanding for someone who was relearning how to walk again, but also the halo harness was wool lined, and I had a goal, one certain goal in mind. To be the PT patient to whom the physical therapists would tell to slow down, I was doing too much. Not to have them ask or beg me to do one more rep or set. I took that mentality to outpatient rehab as well. I distinctly remember doing leg curls, soaking my clothes as I always did, and straining. I paused during one set because my ham string was cramping. My LPTA (who used to be a personal trainer), while working on another patient, asked “Mike, are you cramping?” I immediately responded with “no”. Because I knew she would’ve made me stop or take a break and there was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to stop.
This whole time of physical therapy I had one job and one job only. Heal. It is a grueling and daunting task to say the least. When you have a physically demanding task to do, you are more able to do it angry. Very few power lifters smile while lifting, or football players smile while hitting, or boxers/ MMA fighters smile while fighting. You’re stronger angry. You don’t hurt as much. You’re able to tolerate more. So I allowed myself to stay angry.
I also used to smoke. I always knew I’d quit if I found a reason to quit. I found mine. Nicotine impedes cellular regeneration like bone growth. I was missing one, a very important load bearing bone: L3. So I quit. The nicotine patches placed on me in the mornings wouldn’t last but a few hours before they would simply slide off. So I just wouldn’t replace them. Needless to say that also made me less of a nice guy. Not to mention my being single and living alone made in impractical for me to go home while still in my halo. I couldn’t wash my back underneath the halo harness. And I couldn’t drive. So when I was discharged from inpatient rehab to outpatient rehab, I was discharged to “almost” home. I was only able to swing by my house to pick up my mail. My mom told me that she could see the sadness in my face every time we would go by my house after PT before heading back to my parent’s house.
7 months after the crash my neurosurgeon gave me a choice. Either he could clear me then or I could opt for a few weeks of “work hardening PT”. Since my goal was to invest in my body and get stronger to get back to work, I opted for work hardening. The closest place that offered work hardening was in the same town as my base. So I went there. I worked and worked and worked as hard as I possibly could to get stronger and stronger. Something else I also noticed. My base knew my PT schedule. Not one member of that base stopped by during those sessions to show support. One of them even admitted that he didn’t think I was ever coming back until he saw me running laps around the base after my work hardening PT sessions.
8 months after the crash I was cleared to go back to work without any restrictions. And everything was great… or so I thought. Remember earlier I stated I allowed myself to be angry. Anger is a great tool, one I advocate using when there a strenuous task to be done. However, when the task is over, the tool must be put away. Anger is like a missile. If it does not have a target, it will self-destruct. That is exactly what it did. From April 2008 through August 2008 I was short tempered and snapping at everyone; coworkers and customers alike. I was noticing the look my coworkers used to look at me. It was a look of fear. It wasn’t a look of fear “for” me. It was the look of fear “of” me. They were afraid of me. I had become a safety risk. I had become dangerous. And it came to a boiling point one night on a scene flight.
It was a windy night because further south in the state a hurricane was coming north. We couldn’t go south but we could go north. I couldn’t shake the feeling everybody was pushing to get the flight completed. Our flight volume had been going down since I came back because I was running all of the business away. I was scared. I finally had to admit it. But it happened during an emotional breakdown.
We were out of service for crew issues. The crew issue was me. So I was taken off the schedule for a month to “figure things out”. I had just started talking to a counselor, but it was made official to not come back until I got myself right.
Was I afraid to fly? Was I afraid to crash? Was I done? Could I go on? There was only way to find out. There was only way to know if I was afraid to fly. I had to see if I was truly afraid by risking crashing again. So I went skydiving. I highly recommend it. It was so incredibly fun. I learned something. I learned that I wasn’t afraid of flying. I’m afraid of disability.
I ended up resigning from flying, not to get away from flying, but because my girlfriend at the time couldn’t sleep while I was on duty. So I resigned “for” her. I learned that it ended up being for the wrong reason anyway. So I tried to get back to flying. I ended up getting hired by a smaller service which caused me to learn something about HEMS I was unaware I was realizing.
Helicopter EMS has become too competitive for my taste. I will PR… for education. But I will NOT PR to sell memberships, and I will NOT PR to compete for flight volume. I am a clinician. I am an educator. I am a patient/student advocate. I am not a trained monkey. I am not a politician.
The helicopter EMS industry has left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone has the potential to be great. I’ve been great. I no longer need to be great in the sense of me furthering my career to be at the pinnacle of what others might consider the be all end all of EMS. All I want to be is a patient advocate, a student advocate, and let that be it.
Also, for those with any injuries, I have learned a few things.
1. Physical healing as well as emotional healing is a process. If you're truly
injured and want to heal, pack a lunch. It's going to take a while. Believe me
you have time.
2. Properly encouraged, the human body wants to heal.
3. Since the crash I have run in several 5K's and two triathlons. The last one
was a sprint distance with transition at my house for two means. The first was
that there weren't any triathlons going on near me. And the second reason was
it was wash day. During each transition I'd change a load of clothes then keep
4. I have been blessed with a very loving and supportive family who has always
loved, taught, and encouraged me in my endeavors. They also raised me as a
Mississippi State Bulldog fan which makes this phrase poignant. So I am living
proof that "it ain't the dawg in the fight, it's the fight in the dawg".
5. Don't quit.
I hope this helps someone, anyone, who might be struggling in the aftermath of their crash so they might be able to heal.
Michael D. Hester, RRT/NREMT-P/CCEMT-P/FP-C
Survivor Story: Lt. Lance Leone Courtesy KCAW
This is the first of a three-part interview by KCAW with Lt. Lance Leone, the sole survivor of a 2010 Coast Guard helicopter crash, in which three people from Air Station Sitka died.
An aircrew of four left Air Station Sitka to pick up the new chopper in Astoria, Ore., and fly it back to Alaska. On July 7, 2010, during the first leg of that return flight, the helicopter struck wires near La Push, Wash., and crashed into the sea.
Lt. Sean Krueger, who was the pilot in command, along with Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Hoke and Petty Officer 2nd Class Brett Banks, were killed.
Leone, the co-pilot, faced criminal charges in the aftermath of the crash. Those charges were dismissed, but he was admonished by District headquarters and later transferred to a desk job in San Antonio, Texas.
He spoke to KCAW last week. It is the first time he’s talked on the record to a news organization, and we’re going to bring you the interview in three parts. Here, we begin just before the crash, which happened shortly after Leone transferred to Air Station Sitka.
Interview transcript – Part One
LEONE: I literally had just gotten there. I was still living in a bed and breakfast in the community because my household goods had not arrived yet. So, all of our couches, all of our stuff had not arrived yet from Elizabeth City, because it was taking a barge around the whole world. I don’t know where it went exactly.
KCAW: It felt like the whole world.
LEONE: It felt like that.
KCAW: If we can begin with when you first get to Astoria: Was it the morning of? Or the night before?
LEONE: We were assigned to fly down to Astoria in the Juliet model. 6017 was flying from Elizabeth City, which was an aircraft I’d flown before quite a bit. It was flying across the country and we were flying down from Sitka. We were going to rendezvous in Astoria, exchange paperwork on the two different aircraft, and then the pilots were going to shake hands, swap aircraft, and we were going to fly back to Sitka, and the other aircraft was going to fly back to Elizabeth City. It’s an often done thing in the Coast Guard. Our large depot maintenance is all done in Elizabeth City, so we have to switch our aircraft out.
KCAW: What does it feel like to pick up a new chopper? Is it like driving a car off a lot, or…
LEONE: So, it’s interesting … 6017, I had actually flown it the whole time I was in Elizabeth City. I’d done most of the test flights on it when it came out of the depot maintenance. I’d flown it. When we say it’s brand new, it was refurbished. We’d bought these (MH-)60s in 1991 through 1993 – that timeframe – and they’re the same aircraft. They look absolutely gorgeous always, because we have some of the best maintainers in the world. They’re not brand new, but they are totally, beautifully refurbished. The 6017 had sat in Elizabeth City and I’d flown it on cases in Elizabeth City. It was great to go from the J model to the T model. It was like a new aircraft even though they’ve just been kind of polished and re-done from the inside, like they do with most aircraft that you fly on in the commercial world. They just replace all the parts.
Leone says he was selected for the mission two days beforehand. He and Lt. Sean Krueger, the chopper’s pilot, had met at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. And although Leone had known Krueger for most of his adult life, this would be one of their first times flying together.
As co-pilot, Leone’s responsibility was inside the cockpit – to monitor equipment and navigate the helicopter along a safe course.
LEONE: The morning of the mishap, we all woke up, we had breakfast at a hotel in Astoria. Everyone was very happy to have had the opportunity to go to Astoria. It was one of the warmest couple days on record down there. Leaving Sitka, heading down to Astoria where it was beautiful, taking the opportunity to do lots of shopping at Costco. We were all very motivated to get back home.
We’d spent three days talking about, on the way down, what we were going to do on the way back up. How the weather, what the winds were going to be affecting. We did a lot of talking around the dinner table and the breakfast table that morning about some of the different things we were going to have to experience.
The morning was fairly hurried, because we knew we had a long way to go. Nine-hundred miles with a possible 20-knot headwind depending what altitude we were at was going to make it a very long day, so we knew we had to get on the road. We got all the checklists completed, a lot of busy-ness on the ground.
We took off, climbed to 800 feet, and upon reaching 800 feet, we realized we’d had a headwind that was predicted. We came right back down again to a lower altitude. It was more of an off-shore or on-shore breeze, because there are cliffs all along that shoreway there. And flying up, it was just an absolutely gorgeous day.
The Jayhawk had been upgraded with a new avionics system – those are the electronics that control the helicopter. It included a new autopilot system. Leone refers to it as a “coupler.”
LEONE: When you cross through into Canadian airspace, you have to tell them exactly what time and what location you’ll be crossing into that airspace. So I set that track, I told them how far away it was, and I engaged our auto pilot, which couples up the flight controls with the path I’d set. The path was an offshore path that hit a point on the Canadian airspace, which we would then tell them we were going to fly through there.
KCAW: So Canadian authorities know exactly where you’re going to be, and that that’s you.
LEONE: That’s correct. And we were making jokes about it. I don’t think Canadians ever shot down an American plane headed north. It’s way more important going into American airspace, but you give them the same courtesy that they give us.
Krueger was an experienced pilot whose career included a three-year exchange program with the British Royal Navy. But Leone had more experience with the helicopter’s new systems, especially the autopilot.
LEONE: I was very excited to show him how you can engage it. It will fly itself. As long as you keep it away from obstacles, and have the right altitude, it will fly you safely to wherever you tell it to fly you.
By this time, Coast Guard helicopter 6017 was nearing La Push, Wash. The small town on the Olympic Peninsula is home to the Quileute Tribe, as well as a small Coast Guard boat station.
LEONE: We both saw something up ahead. It was a Coast Guard cutter leaving port – actually, a Coast Guard small boat, a 47-footer, leaving (Station) Quillayute (River).
The helicopter was flying at 220 feet when Krueger began moving it closer to the boat.
Leone says it’s a maneuver pilots often perform at sea when checking on fishing boats or spotting a Coast Guard vessel. The Coast Guard’s report on the accident acknowledges that performing the maneuver is not isolated to this incident, but says vessels should not be “zoomed” except in an emergency or during rescue operations.
Leone describes the next 42 seconds, when helicopter 6017 slowed to 115 knots, descended to 114 feet, and passed over the boat.
LEONE: At this time, (Krueger) said “coupler disengaged” and he started a righthand turn down in a decreasing altitude along the coastline. At this point in the flight recorder it gets very interesting. I say “Well, that’s Quillayute.” And I say it wrong. I can’t read it. It’s a very difficult word. It’s like many Tlingit terms that are very hard for us to read in our language. But I said it, and on the third time of saying it, moments later, we hit something we never saw. And … I was … at that moment, everything changed.
Interview transcript – Part Two
LEONE: I was in the left seat. My shoulders and my knees and my head were all banging around in the cabin for I don’t know how long. It felt very slow motion, but then there was a rapid stop, and that rapid stop quickly became a rapid liquid stop. And I was underwater, upside-down, in a helicopter.
KCAW: It happened that fast.
LEONE: It was that fast. We were flying, everything was fine, and then it blew apart. When I was underwater I didn’t know anything. It felt like the world was shaking apart.
KCAW: What did it sound like?
LEONE: Screeching? Screeching and cracking. I had double hearing protection, but it was kind of like a pounding and a screeching. I got to listen to it on the voice recorder and it is literally screeching and crashing. I don’t know how to link it to … what anyone else would hear. I guess, like a car accident?
KCAW: Was that difficult, listening to those recordings?
LEONE: I had the opportunity to read the recordings months in advance. Actually this time last year was the first time I had the ability to read through the recording and to go through and see what I had done right. I’d read the investigation and seen everything I’d done wrong, and that the crew had done wrong, because that’s what they’d focused on. But to see what I’d done right and everything I did to the best of my ability, but then to listen to it and hear the sounds, it was … I would say “troubling,” but I was ready for it, based upon my desire. I didn’t have to. My lawyers could’ve just listened to it with me outside the room, but I wanted to make sure the nonverbal made it into there.
Leone is referring to nonverbal communications going on in the cockpit. He wanted to make sure they were part of the investigation record, which would later be summed up in what’s called a FAM, or Final Action Memorandum.
KCAW: The Final Action Memo says there were six minutes between impact and the time you fired off a flare. What was going on in those six minutes?
LEONE: So, after the abusive vibrations and then it stopping underwater, I did what every aviator would do out there. We train on it all the time. Yearly, we’re flipped over in a chair and go through the procedures. I did the procedures the Coast Guard taught me. I retracted my collective, found my exit, pushed the exit out of the way. Undid my cords, released my harness and pulled through the hole to get out. This is where it changed a little bit from what I’d done before. I was kicking to get out and I wasn’t getting to the surface.
I hadn’t put my regulator in to breath underwater yet. I just assumed I’d be able to get out quicker than be able to have to put that in. Normally when we do it, it’s a slow flip in a chair. This was an unbelievably fast hitting the water. I can’t quote on how many Gs but I know there was a lot of impact having been flying through the air at 125 knots, and hitting the wires at approximately 115 feet. At that point, we were a projectile.
Leone used an emergency air supply helicopter crews carry. It’s called a HEEDS bottle, which stands for Helicopter Emergency Egress Device. It carries about 1.5 cubic feet of compressed air. How long that lasts depends on how you breathe. In training, Leone could usually get between 7 and 13 good breaths out of it. But after the crash, as he tried to find his way out of the underwater wreckage, he only managed six breaths.
LEONE: Coming to the surface, my eyes were burning because when the 6017 crashed, we were pretty much max-fueled with JP8 jet fuel, which is very similar to kerosene. So when I came up on the surface, I was covered in kerosene. I still had my helmet on, and I started looking for anything to float on, because I couldn’t kick hard enough to keep my head and my body out of the water enough to be comfortable.
Leone broke his collarbone in the accident, and as he tried to inflate his life vest, he discovered his arms weren’t working.
LEONE: It was the first time I’d ever asked my body to do something and my body said “No.” But my wrists worked, and so I cranked my wrist against the base of the regulator, which was sitting right to my left, and for some reason, it worked, with just that little bit of wrist motion.
The vest inflated, but there were still problems. Leone’s dry suit was torn and filling with water, and although he says he wasn’t in pain, there were injuries.
LEONE: I had a piece of helicopter that had lodged itself in my left forearm. My right hand was fairly mutilated because of pounding against something in the helicopter. My right shin was opened to the bone. The bone looked like a corncob that had been eaten – like the white, remaining husk of corn. My ankle was badly swollen. But the only real injury was a broken collarbone and a dislocated shoulder, which are both seatbelt injuries from the seatbelt that saved my life.
Now floating in the water between James Island and La Push, Washington, Leone began to look for his crewmates.
LEONE: I’d assumed based on every survival class I’d taken that everybody else would be there. I’ve not taken classes where you’re the only one left to survive. You’re always part of a team. And I couldn’t find Sean, Brett and Adam. I didn’t know where they were. It was very disheartening, but I knew I had to stay afloat if I could ever figure out where they were.
Leone looked for his emergency beacon, but with his arms disabled, he couldn’t get to it. Next, he reached for a signaling mirror to try and reflect sunlight and catch someone’s attention. As he opened that pocket, out popped a pencil-sized flare. He managed to assemble it using only his fingertips. By the time he fired it into the air, a skiff from the La Push harbormaster’s office was already heading in his direction.
LEONE: As they approached me, they said “We’re going to grab you, we’ve got other people looking for the other three.” I, at that moment, had the wherewithal to tell them, “I don’t want you to pull on my arms,” because I didn’t feel like they were attached. In my head, I kind of envisioned them being disconnected from my body, although my fingers worked. Because I couldn’t use the rest of them, I just pictured they were either just flopping around with nerves just connected, but with bones not… so they, with all the training that they’ve had, pulling fishing nets aboard that boat, they scooped me out of the water by dropping the gunnels of the vessel below my back and sliding me into the back of that johnboat – I call it a johnboat, but it’s just an aluminum craft, maybe 14 feet, maybe longer. But those were the heroes of the day for me.”
Leone was taken to a nearby hospital and then medevacked to Seattle for further recovery. His parents from Maine and Florida, and his family in Sitka met him there within 12 hours.
LEONE: Ellen, my unbelievably great wife, loaded up the children, got an Alaska Airlines flight the Coast Guard booked for her, and she landed in Seattle. The pilots came on the intercom and had everyone sit down so she and the children could get off. The Coast Guard brought her directly to the hospital to see me.
Less than a week after the crash, hundreds of Sitkans, as well as high ranking Coast Guard officers and elected officials gathered at Air Station Sitka for a memorial service in honor of Krueger, Banks and Hoke. Leone was there, too.
LEONE: I had wanted to attend a memorial service in La Push, but my doctors wouldn’t let me go, because they were afraid of blood clotting.
KCAW: Were you medically ready to leave the hospital when the memorial service happened, or was that a little faster than – it just seems fast to me, I guess.
LEONE: I didn’t like being in a hospital. I don’t like being a patient. I like helping people, I don’t like being helped. I don’t know what it is about my personality. The day after the accident I asked when I could stand up and they said “Just wait one more day.” So on Day 3, I stood up, walked around, did the stairs, and on that day I started the long process of physical therapy. It was quick. Similar injuries to a car accident. Obviously physical wounds were very quick to heal. Now, the mental stuff took a lot longer.
Interview transcript – Part Three
LEONE: They told me no one else survived and from that moment on I had to ask continuously: “Why, why, why?” It was immensely troubling. And as I’ve talked to soldiers who have been coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan about this same issue, it affects them as well when their platoon, when their group is hurt, and they say “Why not me? Why didn’t it happen to me?” I don’t know the right answer to how you heal the brain, but it’s definitely slower than the physical side.
KCAW: Was the memorial service a helpful experience for you?
LEONE: It was exhausting for me, mentally and physically. My arms still barely worked but everyone from the town and everyone at the Air Station and everyone that had come to the memorial service was hugging me and I couldn’t be limp and not hug back. So I was hugging as many people as would hug me. I would hug back. I was exhausted. Mentally, I think I was more of a robot. I didn’t know how much I was supposed to cry. I didn’t know if I was supposed to cry. Not crying would be seen as I was too stern. It was very difficult mentally, because obviously all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and cry and cry that Sean, specifically, wasn’t there anymore. I’d known him since 1999. I’d known him since I’d shown up at the Academy. I’d known him most of my adult life. And to have him be the one I was flying with, that didn’t come up to the surface was very trying. The amount that I’d known about Adam and Brett, just having met them, about their families and about their struggles and their hardships and the things that they love – I had to be there to memorialize them. It was very hard. It was hard, but it needed to happen.
KCAW: Do you keep in touch with any of the families today?
LEONE: Absolutely. I attempt to talk to them as often as I can without being bothersome. More than anything it’s, for me, I feel like I want to know how their life is going. How are the children – the seven children that are left behind, how are they doing, is there anything I can do to help?
KCAW: When you found out there were charges, how did you find out?
LEONE: It was a slow process. I was six days from starting flying again in Mobile, Alabama. I was in Washington, D.C. My wife, Ellen, had loaded up our two children at the time, packed everything up and was going to fly down to Pensacola to stay with friends, and Mobile to stay with friends, while I went through the requalification course. We had plans. We had plane tickets. And then I was told while I was in D.C. that I couldn’t attend the training.
KCAW: How were you ultimately informed of the charges? Did you get called into an office?
LEONE: I was sitting there and I got a phone call from now-Capt. (Doug) Cameron, and I said “Sir, I’m at the health fair, can I wait until noon?” and he said, “No, come back right now.”
Cameron, the Air Station’s commanding officer, informed Leone of the charges: Destruction of government property for the loss of the helicopter. Neglecting his duties as navigator, by not avoiding the wires. And the military equivalent of negligent homicide for the deaths of the two crewmen aboard – Hoke and Banks.
LEONE: I had formally been read those exact same charges during the (administrative) investigation, but promised they were just normal. We have to always read you your rights before doing an investigation. So I’d seen those charges before. I’d seen the negligent homicide. I’d seen the dereliction of duty. But to see it actually charged against me, all I could do is sit with my lower jaw gasping.
KCAW: This is in then-Cmdr. Cameron’s office?
LEONE: Correct. And I asked him “What’s next, what do we do next?” And he said, “Well, because of the severity of the charges, you’ll be taken to an Article 32,” and he was extremely professional.
An Article 32 hearing is similar to a grand jury proceeding in civilian court. A military evaluator hears evidence and decides whether there’s merit to proceed to a court martial. Leone’s hearing took place in Juneau in December. The Coast Guard said the helicopter was going too fast and that Leone fell short of his duties as navigator. Leone’s attorneys argued the Coast Guard should’ve already removed the wires the chopper hit, because they’d been implicated in two other accidents. As the arguments went back and forth, Leone sat inside the courtroom and listened. But outside the courtroom, he tried not to think about it.
LEONE: My family’s unbelievable. My wife, my dad, my mom, stepmother, all my family. And then the Sitka family that came over on the ferry with me. How did I occupy my time without the trial? Not talking about the trial. … The first day of testimony was so incredibly trying on my soul, being told of everything I did wrong.
The Coast Guard dropped all charges against Leone, but issued what’s called a “Final Action Memorandum” on the accident. It said Leone directly contributed to the deaths of those on board. And it said he should have been more vocal in challenging Krueger, the pilot in command, when he made a low pass over a Coast Guard boat below.
In a memo of his own, Leone says the black box voice recordings from the accident don’t tell the whole story, and that he challenged Kruger using a method taught to him by the Coast Guard. He calls it “floating a trial balloon.”
LEONE: You say things like “We might not have much radio communications this low,” or “There sure are a lot of bald eagles or birds down this low.” You say stuff like that so they pick up on your discomfort, but you allow them to then make a decision without you having to challenge their authority for the sole purpose of saying that you’re uncomfortable.
Truth be told, when I first showed up in Sitka, I was very uncomfortable because it was different. I’d never flown below terrain. That’s something that I believe anyone that shows up in Alaska that flies below mountain ridges, when you can’t even see the top of the mountain – it’s very different than any flying I’d done before. I used this the whole time I’d been at Sitka for those first couple weeks to gently say I was uncomfortable without being the outcast of “Oh, this guy’s never going to be able to be an aircraft commander. He’s afraid when we even fly through Whale Bay/Gut Bay.” Instead of being afraid, or being concerned openly, I say “Wow, how would we turn around if we had a problem here?” It’s floating a trial balloon that would get across the point that I’m uncomfortable, but I don’t want to challenge the authority of the aircraft commander.
KCAW: Kind of like “Boy, we’re going really fast,” when you’re in a car.
LEONE: Yeah, or like, “I hope there’s not any cops around.” Yes. “Boy we’re going pretty fast. Wow, I didn’t know the car could go this fast,” instead of saying “Slow down you incompetent driver! I’m going to drive!” That’s the spectrum “clear, bold and concise” can take, you know?
With the Coast Guard’s report came an admonishment from Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, the Coast Guard’s commander in Alaska. Leone was transferred to a desk job in San Antonio, Texas. He’s now a Coast Guard liaison to Tricare, the military’s health insurance arm.
And he’s awaiting word about promotion. His lawyer, John Smith, says the promotion is facing extra, unnecessary scrutiny. A Coast Guard board met this month and made a recommendation. That stays secret and heads to Adm. Robert Papp, the Coast Guard’s commandant, in Washington, D.C.
LEONE: They will decide the fate of my Coast Guard career. The fate of me flying again. After the second AEB met and said I could fly again, I didn’t really think there was a way to not fly again. But then I started realizing that if I didn’t make lieutenant commander, I would see out the rest of my time in the Coast Guard here in San Antonio.
If Admiral Papp allows the promotion to move ahead, Leone will become a lieutenant commander and receive back pay to August 1, the date the promotion was scheduled to take effect. If Papp takes Leone off the promotion list, the matter moves to the desk of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano.
KCAW: How has everything that’s happened, from July 7, up until this current situation, how has this shaped the way you feel about the Coast Guard?
LEONE: The Coast Guard is a great organization. It has developed me from when I was 17 to where I currently am. This has really shown me, and developed me, I think more if I’d had nothing to me. It has developed my character, it has developed my knowledge of truth, it has developed how I deal with people, and it has really humbled me to how little I really control a lot of things in my life. But it’s not changed my opinion of the Coast Guard. It’s a wonderful organization filled with the best that America has to offer.
KCAW: I think people hear that and think, “How can he still like the Coast Guard after all of this?”
LEONE: The amazing part is that it’s not the entire Coast Guard. I have gotten so much more support than any of the negative stuff. It’s a question that’s hard for me to answer. I will continue pressing for what I believe is right, and I will not compromise my honor, respect or devotion to duty, like I’ve been taught. I will do what I believe is right for the Coast Guard, and I believe what’s right is to go through this and see the process to finality.
A decision on his promotion to lieutenant commander is not expected until January.
Survivor Story: Dustin Dalton
That day I had a bad feeling as most of us do in EMS or Fire we all have gut feelings that say don’t do that or something is up. I should have listened to mine. It was April 3rd 2009, I was off from work I had a friend call me at the place I worked and asked if I could take his upcoming shift. It was a transport nightshift. We all know the deal I’m not sure if I can take it but I’ll check my calendar type deal, or the if you can’t find anybody I’m the last resort type of thing. Well tonight I was the last resort.
He had been trying to find someone to take his shift all week long and he was being deployed for army training on Friday and the shift was a night shift Thursday night in the city of Radford on the transport truck. To give you a little background on Radford at that time we have one night time transport truck to cover the city of Radford, Blacksburg, Giles, and also Pulaski, that is what we call the New River Valley. We are a dual roll house meaning we all take turns doing transport and EMS for a week. So on that day he called and asked if I could switch I said well yeah since I’m the last hope and he had been so nice to ask.
That day was a normal day in my life taking care of my two boys, so I laid down for a 3 hour nap prior to going to work, I got ready for work after taking a shower and shaving. I told my boys at that time 4 and 3 I love you I have to go to work and work tonight and I’ll see you in the morning.
There was some resistance from them and also from the pit of my stomach and had been since I had received his call. Something nagging telling me that something was off about the night. Kind of like storm chasing a green cloud over a city that goes dark is not a good sign.
After arriving at work we proceeded to check our truck and make sure we had all of our equipment on the truck to run calls which were I’m at is a standard procedure as I’m sure it is everywhere. After checking the truck we went and got food for the night and came back to the office we settled in for the evening we joked around with the EMS truck crew and the response vehicle person and just had a nice evening. I stayed up we were all having fun and didn’t want to settle too much, we had picked up on the scanner a possible active shooter on the local campus in Radford, Radford University. We sat around joking as I’m sure everyone else has, if you go out on that call we aren’t going to come set with you while you wait.
Then it happens tones drop, Radford communications to Radford EMS need for you to respond to Calhoun Street for gunshot wound not sure what kind of injury we are sending police that way. We all jump up and say wow ok, me and my partner Jason gravely at the time were like we will come after we call dispatched and make sure we don’t have a call pending which is standard if we need to back up the EMS truck or the city gets busy, after checking we marked en route right behind the medic truck. We arrived on scene to police controlling a crowd and making sure our safety was being handled.
Needless to say this person did not make it to the hospital he had expired on scene despite our best efforts to bring him back. We all put forth 110% on duty no matter how much we have slept and how much we have done. So after arriving at the hospital we helped get the truck back in order and then after hanging out talking with the night shift nurses at the hospital we cleared and headed back to the office but we all know how that is the adrenaline is pumping and we all couldn’t sleep so we cleared around 130am Friday morning. At 4 am we laid down for a nap and at 5 am we received a call to go to the local hospital to do a routine transport from the hospital to UVA, University of Virginia medical college which is a hospital 2 and a half hours north of my local run area.
So we arrive at the hospital my partner and I flip a coin to see who rides and who drives, it’s a BLS emergent transfer from the facility. I draw the driving and he is like if you can drive up ill drive back I told him “that’s fine man I don’t mind.” So we spend an hour at this facility due to paperwork issues and getting the doctor that night to sign the paperwork and the staff to get it ready they all had been swamped and ready to go home to bed. We get the patient loaded and start driving down the road I hear my partner click his seat belt. He has been in EMS for 19 going on 20 years he clicked his seatbelt that was the first time being in the back he had done that. Again that goes back to having a gut feeling that something was off that night.
So we travel interstate 81 for 112 miles to the interstate 64 interchange were we continue for 30 more miles to UVA. This is a short trip as we like to call them. As we are driving up the road my partner is taking care of his patient, I have the brother in the front and he is an interpreter for his brother because they speak Spanish and for the life of me I never took Spanish. So as we are driving up the road we run into some heavy rains around the 160 mile marker, there off and on for the next 20 miles or so. Going from visibility of 3 miles down to 6 inches at its heaviest point. So as we are going up the road I’m physically done spent can’t go no further but I have to no one is going to come drive for me and there’s no policy in place for this. So as we keep going I feel myself nodding off and waking up just saying to myself “if I can just get 10 minute nap I’ll be fine.”
As we approach the 185.0 mile marker the rain decides to pick up heavier than before visibility down to 1 ½ in of distance in front of me so I’m watching everyone else’s tail lights. While I have my red lights on and siren due to being an emergent BLS discharge. I pass a tractor trailer on the left, well then the truck decides to pass me and get over in front of me. As we approach the 190 mile marker the truck starts to slow and then the truck slows down to a point where it’s at a crawl, here is decision time. Do we make for the grass through the guard rail or do we try and veer off and try and stop. Well I chose the grass due to it being soft and not as hard, as I applied the brake to the truck it started to hydro plane in the storm as it did this you could feel the rear end of the truck start to sway as gravely stated later on.
As we are sliding towards the tractor trailer in the right hand lane I yell “oh shit hang on” and then bam. After being stopped I start a self assessment, I check myself to see if I’m alright then it moves into checking on my partner. So I start hollering at him “Hey gravely I’m pinned I can’t move my legs pinned in between the steering wheel dog house and the dash and seat. Gravely pops his head up through the middle and says “man are you ok do we have communications” I said “No I don’t think so, wait I have my phone my good old blackberry device was saved.” No other equipment in the truck was operable. So now gravely became the aic for 3 patients.
He starts relaying information to our dispatch center our location what happened and where we are at. After that he puts oxygen by non rebreather mask on me and makes sure the other two patients are ok because now the brother and patient have become patients again. So the fire department arrives and they start extricating me from the vehicle, after 45 minutes start to finish I was out of the vehicle on my way with one of my own people from our business taking care of me in the back of an ambulance. We all made our way to Lexington which is a long ride from Radford to Lexington there’s no direct way there. We arrive there and I’m taken into the trauma bay at the hospital.
My boss arrives shortly thereafter and checks on everyone. Gravely states “I’m ok dustins in the trauma bay there.” When he gets there I can’t hold it together no longer I’m upset I haven’t ever been in an accident like this, I tell him I’m sorry I wrecked the ambulance, I was thinking to myself I have lost my job and I’m done I won’t ever work in EMS again.” He leans down and tells me “hey we can replace trucks they make them every day but we can’t replace the people. “And that still holds true.
They bring me to the local level one trauma center in Roanoke Virginia with traumatic injury to the left leg and also possible abdominal injuries. I arrive into the ER trauma bay and there are all of my bosses, my manager and my CTL, I get their attention they come over and there like man its ok you have nothing to worry about. They are getting the low down from the upper boss which is the one that to this day we have a special bond. After getting my eval and the 15 x ray images and the extra 8 of my left leg I head into surgery.
During the wait time my mom and dad are arriving to talk to me and be with me, they’re upset my dad is a stone cold person some days hard to read but he became a big part of my recovery and we will get to that in just a few minutes. My mom was pleased and grateful to see me she was upset understandable and my sister was running around with my phone fielding phone calls emails text messages and other things updating my facebook she became my own personal public relations officer. After being assessed by the trauma services staff and getting visits from people from work and having several come see me and telling me they were going to kick my tail. I headed off into surgery to have my left tibia and fibula fixed with screws.
After surgery I arrived into recovery was awoken by a very unforgiving nurse when it came to waking me up. I stayed in my room in the hospital. This is where I had things come to my attention that I hadn’t before. The news reported my accident just 14 minutes after 7am, my name had been released shortly thereafter, the video of the extrication was released and I had several more visitors during my one night stay in the hospital. I was briefed by my boss that if the news reporters called to direct them to our public relations officer. At this point in time I had time to reflect, I was upset at myself for wrecking, I know that no one got seriously injured other than me I made sure to check on the patient and his brother and my partner all returned home. I was also irritated that the fire department had released my name and video to the news.
I was also upset that I could have been more seriously injured and not be here to see my boys grow up, I was grateful to be here I knew that I had a guardian angel looking out for me and I knew that I had to change things in my life. After returning home after one night I fielded what felt like half a million texts emails and messages, well that number was 10,000. I had to go to a de briefing that was held not only to see what we could have done better but what we could have done and had done. Also to look at the truck when it was back at the office to see the damage done to the truck. There was a lot done the hood had been split in two, the box was curvy making waves as a body shop would call them, the dash and front of the truck was completely demolished.
It took 3 months to recover from my injury, PT was a challenge I went three days a week for two months. Every day was a challenge to make my leg better pushing myself to get back on the truck so I could run calls, I was able to drive myself after a month of PT, so the next month I went and visited people that I had only talked to in text for the first two months. This was an eye opening experience for me. I was recently asked in a 2011 AMTC conference how do I prepare my kids for the event that I don’t come back from work. Well my attitude is I’m going home no matter what at the end of the day. I didn’t know how to answer that question but I have an answer for it now. I would tell my kids every day I love them and make sure that I spend every day I can with them and make sure that they know I love them.
So this is my story I know it was long and hopefully it helps other people involved in ambulance accidents to know that they can talk about it and get it off their chest. I still get choked up talking about my event and its 2 years past. One man at the conference referenced above stated “a hero is just an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation and I believe it.” I’m no hero just here to help everyone else out.