NAS Whidbey Island Search & Rescue crew shares how they found plane crash survivors
BRINNON, Wash. - The two men who crashed their small plane into the Olympic Mountain Range near Brinnon this weekend are improving.
Officials said Monday they're both in serious condition and in Intensive Care at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Medics who treated the two said one appears to have a broken back, the other a broken leg and cuts to his face.
But they are alive thanks to their own actions and the quick and expert response from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Search and Rescue.
KOMO caught up with all but one member of the modest crew inside the hangar that houses their Nighthawk MH60 Chopper at NAS Whidbey Island, on Monday. They include: LT Andrew Boyle, LT Adam Laakso, AWS1 Joshua Vest, AWS2 Francisco Toledo, HMC Wayne Papalski and HM3 John Siedler.
Photos captured by the rescue crew reveal what some might call a "miracle on the mountain."
The small aircraft crashed and embedded into a mountain cirque Sunday afternoon. The front half the plane was burrowed into the snowpack, right up to the wings. Its tail snapped and was left to dangle in the rugged Olympic Mountain Range.
The wreckage was perched just below a steep ridge line, on a 40-degree slope covered in a couple inches of ice.
"They were very, very scared. That's a very traumatic event for anyone, no matter what you've been through," said Siedler, NAS Whidbey Island SAR Chief Flight Medic.
5,700 feet in the middle of nowhere, on a ridge near Mount Jupiter, an instructor and his student sat on the plane's wing. They were injured and practically frozen as they waited for help.
Emergency responders said the pilot got off a distress signal, which was intercepted by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tydall AFD in Florida and by Delta Flight 580, traveling from Seattle to Shanghai.
Delta said it established contact with the injured instructor and student on the ground.
The Air Force contacted our state's Department of Transportation and a search and rescue mission for the missing plane was underway around 4 p.m. Sunday.
Whidbey Island's Search and Rescue Team got the call and was in the air 40 minutes later.
"Anytime we hear of a plane crash, it generally comes with a grim outcome," Siedler said. "So to go on scene and find two survivors -- that's very uplifting as a crew."
He and a second flight medic rappelled down to access, treat and hoist the passengers to safety.
"The first thing they said was thank you to me -- that's always uplifting to us," said Siedler.
What lead up to the crash is still not clear.
"The only thing, I could tell, at some point they were having some difficulty with the controls and the next thing they knew, they were in the mountain," said Siedler.
Normally, Whidbey Island Search and Rescue crew relies on one medic, but since a second was available, Siedler tagged along. It was a good thing, as it made for a quicker response. Siedler said at one point both the patients lost consciousness and they were concerned both may have suffered concussions on impact, and were already dealing with hypothermia.
Half the battle was finding a tiny white plane in a massive field of white snow pack.
The medics credit a red dot for helping them find the wreckage. That dot turned out to be one of the injured flyers' red shirt.
Despite low ceiling weather conditions, the crew found blue skies above the crash site.
Then came dealing with the steep slope, working on a sheet of ice, the risk of an avalanche letting loose and trying to conserve fuel.
The biggest scare came while the rescuers were on the ground getting the victims onto backboards, they saw the tail moving on the wrecked Cirrus SR22. They learned that inside the plane was a parachute that hadn't opened.
They worried it might let loose, break apart and send debris crashing down on them.
"Our bigger concern was that aircraft was there it was broken and as our chopper was flying around that, we weren't blowing debris into ourselves or our two patients," said Siedler.
They had to scramble to move the patients to higher ground then hoist them to chopper 75 feet above in midair.
50 minutes after the medics touched down, the victims were safe, warm and on their way to the hospital.
A day later, the Search and Rescue team was quick to say they were just doing what they're trained to do. Their pilots all have 1,000 hours of training. They are all active duty and on call 24-7 for the Navy.
"Without the jets, we're not here," said Siedler.
Responding to mountain rescue and medical evacuations for NAS Whidbey Island is their priority, but when they can, they answer civilian calls for help.
They credited their training, the Navy and in this case those downed flyers for a successful rescue mission.
"The thing that carried them is that they were able to get out of the aircraft themselves," said Siedler.