Inside the rescue of Idaho plane crash survivors

Jun 3 2012 - 7:55am

A miracle cellphone signal.

The perfect app.

More than 50 people slogging through the snowy wilderness in rugged Owyhee County on Memorial Day weekend.

Great training, cooperation and good luck combined to save three people whose plane crashed late May 26 into the mountains near the Idaho-Oregon border.

12:08 a.m. 'Send a search party, please'

Dispatcher: "Owyhee County 911, what is your emergency?"

Caller: "Hi, I'm in an airplane, and I crashed and I'm in the mountains."

Dispatcher: "Where are you at, hon?"

Caller: "29 miles east, west of Mountain Home, Idaho. I need you to send a search party, please ..."

The 911 call was made by pilot Brian Brown's daughter, Heather, about three hours after the crash. Her mother's cellphone had been tossed about, and it wasn't until it rang amid the wreckage that the Browns realized it worked on the remote mountain.

ATandT has a cell tower on War Eagle Mountain, Silver City Fire and Rescue Chief Jim Hyslop said. The crash was on the south side of nearby Turntable Mountain.

"Common knowledge is that cellphones don't work on the back side of the range. It's very surprising they got a call out," Hyslop said.

The cellphone proved useful in another way: It had an app for a strobe light. When an air ambulance flew overhead, Brian Brown went into a clearing with his phone, said Nampa Fire Deputy Chief Doug Strosnider, who spoke with Brown at the crash site.

"He held that up, and that's what they saw," Strosnider said.

2:28 a.m. Incident command meeting

Owyhee County sheriff's deputies and sheriff's posse were dispatched immediately. Four air ambulance crews - Air St. Luke's from Boise and Twin Falls, and LifeFlight from Ontario, Ore., and Boise - were involved in the overnight search.

Josh Bingaman, a nurse/paramedic with Air St. Luke's, was with a Boise crew diverted to search the Owyhees. Wearing night-vision goggles, they scanned the mountains for about three hours - returning once to Boise to refuel. The crash survivors' cellphone was pinged, so the first responders knew to look in a 4-mile area, Bingaman said. But finding the white, yellow and black plane in the forested, snowy mountains proved difficult.

4 a.m. Emergency beacon picked up by air ambulance

"Ultimately, if they hadn't had their ELT (emergency locator transponder) activated, I don't think we would have found them that night," Bingaman said.

6:07 a.m. First sight of plane

The St. Luke's crew from Twin Falls landed its chopper on a ridge - the saddle on the west side of Turntable Mountain - and hiked down to render aid.

"It took several hours before anyone could get to the site by ground with ATVs," Bingaman said. "It was very steep."

10 a.m. Rope team secures wreckage to make site safer

Because of that steep terrain - about 60 degrees - personnel with training in high-angle rescues from the Nampa Fire Department and the all-volunteer Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue were dispatched.

One of the first things they did was to secure the wreckage with ropes, so no one could be injured by plane debris. There was little they could do about one piece - a wing, lodged high in a tree.

Rescuers determined that the first and best option for getting the survivors out of the ravine was loading them onto stretchers and hoisting them into a National Guard helicopter, which would ferry them to waiting air ambulances on the ridge.

10:37 a.m. Idaho National Guard helicopter with hoist heads to site

Federal approval for the Guard mission came at 8:21 a.m., and the UH-72 Lakota helicopter was sent from Gowen Field. But there was uncertainty about logistics - the proximity of trees, including the one with the plane wing. What if the downwash, the downward blast generated by the helicopter blades, dislodged it?

Medical and rope crews worked to "package" the patients onto stretchers, then set up a rope system to transfer them about 100 yards up a slope to a small shelf away from trees. The patients were carried up the slope, the ropes providing an added measure of safety, said Nampa's Strosnider.

The air lift/hoist was Plan A. But the weather might not cooperate. If the helicopter lift wouldn't work, Plan B was to set up rigging to haul them out on the ground, said Mike Johnson, incident operations lead for Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue. "Things were changing by the minute," Johnson said. "We weren't sure we'd get them out via hoist."

The crash site was at about 7,100 feet, the helicopter landing zone at 7,550 feet. The constantly changing weather made the rescue tricky.

There's still snow in the mountains near Silver City. In fact, 6-foot-deep drifts on the road made sections impassable. ATVs shuttled people andgear until the road could be shoveled by hand.

Temperatures were in the 30s; wind gusts reached 20 mph. Heavy snow fell intermittently during the search and the rescue.

At one point, clouds socked the rescuers in, creating white-out conditions. As things warmed up, the slopes became muddy and slippery.

Noon to 2 p.m. Crews transfer patients from ravine to ridge

Chief Warrant Officer Mitchell Watson has been flying helicopters since 2000. When he got the call Sunday morning, he knew he'd be flying a new UH-72 Lakota on a rescue for the first time.

Most of Watson's flying experience is with the Black Hawk helicopter. But the Lakota had advantages helpful for this rescue, he said.

"It's smaller. I can get into tighter spaces," Watson said. He had to hover near trees, so that size was key.

The Lakota also has less rotor downwash. That was another advantage, with the plane's wing lodged in the tree.

The copter can be flown by a single pilot, saving on weight.

The Guard crew has five members: four on the aircraft and one handling communications from Gowen Field.

Witnesses said the crew did an amazing job. Watson makes it sound simple.

"All I had to do was hover above them," he said.

The patients, bundled up on stretchers, were connected to the mechanical hoist. It has up to 300 feet of cable, but this rescue required just 130.

Watson said hoisting and transferring the patients took less than 4 minutes each.

When he got home that afternoon, he told his wife and 6-year-old daughter he was proud to be in the Guard, to be part of the mission and to be able to help people.

"It seems to me that I'm getting an awful lot of attention," Watson said, "but I was just one small piece of this giant effort to help."

3:15 p.m. Owyhee County deputies clear the scene

"It was like being part of a symphony, it was so well run. Everybody had their place ... and everybody was doing their job incredibly well," said Josh Bingaman, paramedic.

Postscript: Family gets to return home

The Browns were flying from Sacramento to Mountain Home to visit family at the time of the crash. Pilot Brian Brown said he believed ice caused a wing stall.

All three members of the Wilton, Calif., family - Brian, 47, wife Jayann, 46, and daughter Heather, 26 - survived head, neck and back injuries. They all have been released from the hospital.

Brian Brown is a captain at the Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department in Elk Grove, Calif., according to the San Jose Mercury News. He is also deputy chief of operation and training with the volunteer Wilton Fire Protection District.


)2012 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

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