Why? Two important aspects of the airport made an airliner
crash in the mountains foreseeable. The first was climate. The
region was subject to frequent and severe winter blizzards. These
storms created whiteout conditions at all elevations.
Second was topography of the airport. The airport was located
in a narrow valley surround by high mountain peaks. One pilot
described the airport as a high-risk landing site because of the
topography. The inbound flight path required pilots to fly low
over the mountains and then go into a steep dive to the valley
floor. Pilots then had to level off just before touching down at the
airport. This was a risky maneuver in and of itself, so emergency
service agencies developed response protocols for crashes at or
near the airport.
There was nothing wrong with their planning so far, but what
about a crash in the mountains? There was just as great a risk
of jets crashing coming in low over the mountains or crashing
during the descent to the valley floor. Why hadn’t the department
planned for such an event? The paramedic gave me the answer:
“It had never happened before, so my department never developed response protocols for an MCI in the mountains.”
Shortsightedness left only two response options: wait several
days for the storm to pass and then send the jeep posse up to do
a body recovery or attempt a risky helicopter rescue in a zero-
visibility snowstorm. A pilot, a paramedic, and an emergency
medical technician volunteered for the mission. As the three lifted
off, the pilot turned toward the paramedic. “You know, son,” he
said. “We’ll probably auger into the mountain ourselves because I
can’t see 50 feet beyond the chopper canopy.”
After a 25-minute, jaw-clenching, white-knuckle ride, they
touched down a short distance from the quarter-mile trench left
by the jetliner. Victims were buried in the snow along the entire
length of the trench, and visibility in the wind-driven snow was
only 50 feet. The two responders with their jump bags realized
the enormity of the task ahead of them. The paramedic also
knew there was little hope of saving even one victim under these
conditions. And worse, it would be more than three hours before
another paramedic arrived by jeep.
The department should have been prepared for this type of
event—but it wasn’t. Personnel had never even practiced for a
high-altitude rescue mission like this.
I would like to say this was the only department I encountered
that failed to plan for such an incident, but it’s not. I spoke to a
fire command officer from another fire department as well. His
words were almost verbatim what the paramedic originally stated.
He knew his department was ready for anything.
But the fire command officer’s emergency response plans got a
little fuzzy when I asked him one simple question: “Are you really
ready to respond to a 747 jetliner slamming into the 11,000-foot
peak a few miles away?”
This was not a remote possibility. Why? A C- 54 transport
augered into the peak many years ago during a winter storm,
Nowadays, jumbo jets fly over this peak. Here was the fire com-
mand officer’s plan for getting his team to such a crash site: He
would send one of the department’s single-patient, four-wheel-
drive ambulances and a couple of quads up the mountain.
I doubt he’s ever set up a tabletop exercise or practical exercise
to test his response protocol. If he had, he would know ground
rescue might be impossible because of flash flooding and whiteout conditions prevalent during storms on the mountain. I also
know from firsthand experience that preplanning and practicing for such rescues are musts. How? I used to be a member of a
ground search and rescue (SAR) team, and we actively planned
and trained for a wide range of missions, including high mountain rescues. There was only one mission we were ever ordered to
abort. It involved a plane crash high on a mountain. Our team
was just 30 miles from the crash site, but the SAR mission commander felt the zero-visibility blizzard, below-freezing temperatures, and steep terrain created too great a risk for our rescue team
Later, we found out several people survived the crash. One
walked away from the crash and lived for another day.
HAVE A PLAN
So, what plan do you have to transport first responders and
medical supplies up a mountain or bring dozens of injured
victims down? The paramedic opted for a risky helicopter ride
up the mountain. There was no plan to bring the injured down
when he lifted off.
The fire command officer would send four-wheel-drive vehicles
up the mountain, but his plan didn’t take into account flash
floods likely in the area or zero-visibility flight conditions.
The SAR mission commander chose to abort the mission until
more favorable weather conditions existed in the area. Then a
team would be sent up to do body retrievals.
Now the ball is in your court. Your MCI is two miles up. What
will you do? That will depend a lot on the preplanning and
training you’ve done beforehand. So again, I ask: Are you really
prepared to respond?
S. Patrick Culshaw spent 30 years in emergency services. He was a part-time safety
instructor during this time. Culshaw also helped set up one of the first CERT type
programs in rural Arizona. He set up and headed a regional emergency response
network, set up a mine emergency response program, and helped set up and ran
with a regional ambulance service. Culshaw also participated in numerous search
and rescue missions. He served for many years in the fire/rescue service and was a
founding member and chief of one of the fire departments he served with.
The Nevada fire department mentioned at the beginning of the article learned a valuable lesson from the
jetliner crash. It developed MCI kits. These large kits can
be delivered to an incident site either by helicopter or