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Pararescue Airmen aid avalanche victims

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

3/27/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- A pararescue Airmen who went to the aid of avalanche victims nearly became a victim himself when the rescue helicopter dragged him and his patient across the steeply sloped mountain March 18.

Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Darrell Williams, a pararescueman with the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., and the patient in the rescue basket, were dragged twice when the 22,000-pound helicopter hovering overhead encountered visibility issues on Chugach Mountain, south of Anchorage.

The aircrew was unable to tell that Williams and the patient were connected to the hoist. In an instant, the helicopter jerked Williams and the injured skier about 20 feet through the snow, but never lifting them off the ground. Then it happened again - another 20-foot drag through the snow.

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

Three skiers were trapped by the avalanche: Ian Lacroix, 20, was buried with a broken leg, but managed to dig out to reunite with his brother, Nathan, 28, who stayed with him while the third skier, Connor Maloney, 23, made his way down the mountain and found a state trooper.

The 11th U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center called the Alaskan Air National Guard's 176th Air Wing to help.

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

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

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

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

Due to the slope of the mountain they decided to hoist Williams and fellow ANG Guardian Angel Airman Tech. Sgt. Kristofer Abel, to the snowy ground below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It was definitely exciting. It was eye-opening," said Williams.

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

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