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3 February, 2003

February 3, 2003

Heroes and Helos

On January 17, 2003, at about 4:00 PM McMurdo time, I witnessed a helicopter crash on Lake Fryxell. It has taken this long to write the journal for a myriad of reasons. First of all, the event was traumatic for those who saw the crash and were first responders at the scene. It has taken some time for all of us to explore and deal with the feelings that day evoked. The second reason is that since there is an ongoing investigation in progress, I wanted to be careful in dealing with sensitive material. But it is time now to tell the story—not of the crash itself, but of the everyday people who for me became true heroes.

Lake Fryxell Hut was a busy place that day. Jen, Erin and I were surveying Huey Creek on the hill behind the hut. A team of two wind erosion scientists and two McMurdo workers on a boondoggle with that team were finishing packing and would soon be heloed back to town. Their helo was first slingloading the lake platform back to land to be secured for the winter. Another helo was on the ground after carrying the Lake Hoare camp manager and assistant manager to Lake Fryxell to ready it for the environmental audit that happens at the end of the season. Having this many people in the immediate vicinity was lucky coincidence number one. Having a second helo on the ground was extremely lucky coincidence number two.

I had finished my part of the survey and was standing on the hill waiting for Erin and Jen to finish taking samples down in the streambed. To entertain myself I was watching the helo working out on the lake. It lifted the slingloaded platform and flew around the lake, but the wind was blowing pretty strongly, and it seemed to be a bit of a struggle. The platform caught the wind and swung up, and for whatever reason, the rotor blades stopped. In just seconds that slowed to an eternity, the helo crashed to the lake surface. In disbelief I watched for fire and then hoped I would see the pilot and helo tech climb out, but no movement was seen. For a stunned moment, time seemed to stand still as we tried to gain back a sense of reality, and to make a decision as to what we should and could do.

The bad news was that the helo pilot had just told us he might have to spend the night in Taylor Valley because the weather was so bad in McMurdo. We knew there would be no help coming out to us anytime in the near future, and that the decisions we made from then on would determine the outcome for the two guys in the crash.

We ran down the hill as the pilot of the other helo and the two Lake Hoare managers flew to the crash site to check out what was needed. We radioed John and Pete who came over on the snowmobile from F6 bringing our tools and first aid kits. The rest of us began readying the Fryxell Hut to act as a hospital. We turned on the preway to warm the building, carried water from the lake and began heating it, found sleeping bags, swept the floor, and inventoried the first aid supplies. Calls were made to Mac Ops to report what was happening and to set up a line of communication from the crash scene by radio to the hut, and then by phone to McMurdo. We called the other Taylor Valley camps to tell them to get ready tools for extrication, first aid kits and people who had medical or first aid training. The pilot of the helo that was still flying was able to fly to the other camps and shuttle people and supplies to the crash site. The fact that there were several people trained in wilderness first aid and one EMT who were in Taylor Valley was lucky coincidence number three.

The next few hours were extremely high stress for the rescuers on the ice. Both guys were trapped and seriously injured. The rescue team had precious little in the way of tools, but valiantly worked to cut the helo apart to extricate the men. In the mean time part of the Search and Rescue Team, SAR, happened to be on a mountain in the Dry Valleys and were able to be air lifted to the lake a couple of hours into the rescue. This was lucky coincidence number four.

The weather finally lifted enough that a Coast Guard helo was able to fly in from McMurdo with some medical personnel and supplies, which was lucky coincidence number five.

An army cargo plane had been forced to land at Pegasus Airfield because of weather. It was fully fueled and had a crew ready to fly to Christchurch. This was lucky coincidence number six.

The two men were finally removed from the aircraft, flown by helo to the cargo plane, and immediately taken to New Zealand where they are recovering from their injuries.

But the real story was not the drama that unfolded that afternoon. It was the story of everyday people with no rescue training or specialized tools, stepping in and doing whatever was necessary to save the lives of two people. They did this at great risk to themselves. The rescue was an amazingly organized operation. An interesting side story is that three of the rescuers had been in snow school together where they had failed miserably doing the bucket brigade which trains you to save someone lost in a whiteout. Their group had many strong leaders and there were more arguments than solutions. In the real situation of the helo crash, though, roles were quickly taken and acted upon and everyone worked together in seamless coordination.

The pilot and the helo tech kept incredibly positive attitudes throughout their terrible ordeal. They are survivors, and with all the lucky coincidences in their favor that day, they seem to have had a guardian looking after them, too.

We often call sports figures and movie stars heroes, and I question in most cases whether they are deserving of such a title. I will never forget the ordinary people that fateful day on Lake Fryxell who came together and did extraordinary things to save the lives of two fellow human beings. They are truly MY heroes.

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