Short Haul Helicopter Rescue Carries Injured Man off Maine Mountain

Rescue marked first use of new capability for Maine Forest Service and turned 18-hour carry into 8-mile ride dangling from chopper


 
 

David Hench, Portland Press Herald | | Friday, July 5, 2013


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Raw Footage: Short Haul Rescue of Injured Man from Maine Mountain

They would lower a rescuer on a line from a helicopter, strap the man into a harness, then fly with rescuer and patient dangling below helicopter to the nearest landing site.
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Ned Hamara sat on the unforgiving rocks of the Hunt Trail, two-thirds of the way up Mount Katahdin, and circled his left arm above his head, checking for injury.

The 62-year-old hiking enthusiast had just had a granite boulder the size of a coffee table pull free of the mountain, knocking him down a steep rock face. He was going through the anxious exercise of figuring out just how badly he was injured.

"I didn't think I was really hurt," Hamara said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his hospital bed at Eastern Maine Medical Center. "The biggest impact was on my left shoulder. I had no idea how I hurt my foot. There was like a crevice I must have caught my foot on."

He had a full range of motion in his arm, but it was sore, and his foot hurt. His legs were covered in blood from a gash on his elbow. He had been to the summit before, having through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009. His hiking partner, a tri-athlete, was far above him. Hamara decided to turn back.

As he pulled himself up from beneath an outcropping, however, his shoulder popped free of its socket and he fell. As he collapsed, he realized that his foot was hurt worse than he had realized. The trek down slowed to a crawl and was excruciatingly painful.

"He was definitely slowing down as we worked our way down," said Dana Francey, an Eastern Maine Medical Center nurse who had been helping Hamara up a steep section when the boulder tumbled free. "We thought we'd have him back to base camp by 7 p.m., but it was probably more like 11 p.m. or midnight at the rate we were going." It turned out even that was overly optimistic.

Rangers at Baxter State Park could launch a rescue team to carry him down the trail in a litter. Depending on how many volunteers they could find, the treacherous carry would take as long as 18 hours, much of it through a heavy rain that was approaching.

There was nowhere nearby to land a Maine Forest Service rescue helicopter; but the service had another option, a new capability the agency's rangers had developed. Called a short haul rescue, they would lower a rescuer on a line from a Huey UH-1 helicopter, strap Hamara into a harness called a "screamer suit," and then fly with the two of them to the nearest landing site.

The short haul system had been developed over the past year and a half and deployed this spring. Monday's rescue attempt was the Forest Service's first with the new system.

"We basically took an 18-hour carry and turned it into an eight-mile ride," said Forest Service chief pilot John Crowley.

The new rescue system was just one of a series of lucky breaks that conspired to get Hamara off the state's tallest peak without further injury to him or others. There was Francey, a new EMMC nurse being there when Hamara first gashed his elbow, wrapping it in gauze and changing the dressing, which would become saturated, as they passed hikers who offered supplies.

There was the emergency room doctor they encountered just as Hamara aggravated his injury and who would put Hamara's shoulder back in place.

Had either the rock that injured him or another that tumbled after hit him in the head, he might be dead.

And there was the weather, or lack of it. Storm clouds threatened for much of the afternoon but held off until Hamara was safely away.

A month ago, the retired FBI agent from just north of Houston was hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain when he developed an acute pain in his abdomen. A few days later he was having surgery to remove his appendix. Ten days later, he was back on the trail, though he had to maneuver his backpack hip belt so that it didn't press against his incision.

Hamara retired from law enforcement in 2001 (his trail name is NedtheFed) and a few years later connected with a friend who was planning a through hike on the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, in Georgia, to Katahdin in Maine.

"I got the hiker bug," he said.

Crowley said agency's helicopter took off from Old Town at about noon. Chris Blackie was piloting with Lincoln Mazzei as crew chief and Tom Liba as rescuer.

The initial rescue spot was too dangerous. When they came back, Hamara was perched alongside Rescue Rock.

"There must have been 20 hikers," Hamara said. "The helicopter is so low it's like a hurricane on the ground, with all the debris flying around.

"He says, 'You're about to be in for a ride of your life,'" Hamara said. "We just take off straight up in the air. I thought I was going to be pulled up; no, they just dangle you from a helicopter."

It was more exhilarating than frightening.

"It was a nice little ride. I got good scenery. It was perfect," he said. Flying at 40 knots over the countryside, they landed at Caribou Pit, an unused gravel pit, 15 minutes later, where they met an ambulance.

Francey said where Hamara's face had been mostly cheerful to that point, he turned serious and silent.

As the helicopter descended, Liba was spinning around. Finally, he touched ground and disconnected from the line, and the helicopter left to circle a distance away.

Liba pulled Hamara to the top of the rock and put him into the red screamer suit, which Crowley described as like a full body web of straps with a carabiner in the front to hook to the line.

The helicopter returned and Liba hooked himself and Hamara to it, and they lifted off.

"He says, 'You're about to be in for a ride of your life,'" Hamara said. "We just take off straight up in the air. I thought I was going to be pulled up; no, they just dangle you from a helicopter."

It was more exhilarating than frightening.

"It was a nice little ride. I got good scenery. It was perfect," he said. Flying at 40 knots over the countryside, they landed at Caribou Pit, an unused gravel pit, 15 minutes later, where they met an ambulance.

Hamara was taken first to Millinocket Hospital for x-rays, then to EMMC. He was told all the toes in his left foot had shifted to one side and come apart at the tendons. He had surgery Tuesday.

"The operation involved going in and aligning the metatarsals again and screwing everything in place," Hamara said. The doctor said the surgery went well, but he still faces at least a month in a wheelchair.

"I'm not really happy about it," he said. "I need to be indoors. This is going to drive me nuts."

Once Hamara's rehabilitation is complete, he plans to hit the trail again, he said. He hopes to hike major trails in New Zealand, England and another stretch of the Pacific Coast Trail.



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Raw Footage: Short Haul Rescue of Injured Man from Maine Mountain


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