Saving lives a flight at a time
Sunday, September 23 2012
The accident at Charlotteville, Tobago, on September 1, in which 23 persons — 17 soldiers, two sailors and four civilians — were injured, saw collaboration between various State agencies in Trinidad and Tobago to help save lives.
The accident occurred at about 6.30 pm, when Lance Corporal Nicholas Marcelle was transporting members of the TT Defence Force Rugby Team, who were in Tobago over that weekend for a game. As Marcelle drove toward Charlotteville, he encountered problems as the truck passed a sharp bend along the Windward Road, in an area known to Tobagonians as Bark Hill.
The soldier tried to bank the truck to avoid going down a precipice but the truck turned over. Several ambulances responded to the scene, as well as personnel from the Community Emergency Response Team, Fire Service and police. The injured were taken to the Scarborough Hospital, while some of the most seriously injured were airlifted from the Cyd Gray Sporting Complex grounds at Roxborough, located approximately 20 miles west of Charlotteville. The State agency which was responsible for airlifting the injured to Trinidad was the National Security Operations Centre (NSOC) Air Division.
The collaborative effort was commended by Minister of National Security Jack Warner when he visited the injured at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex (EWMSC), Mt Hope, on September 3, along with Chief of Defence Staff Brigadier Kenrick Maharaj and Commanding Officer of the Regiment, Anthony WJ Phillips-Spencer. Phillips-Spencer praised the “effective” response to the accident and said “within 12 hours we had more than just primary care, also secondary health care delivered to all 23 persons”.
The name NSOC may not be familiar to many, but the work done by its personnel is. Among their duties — routine day and night patrols in support of policing operations, disaster relief efforts, including reconnaissance in flood prone areas, fire suppression support using bambi buckets, maritime patrols supporting the Coast Guard, counter terrorism operations and VIP movements. The unit called NSOC was previously the air division of the Special Anti-Crime Unit (SAUTT) and provided all the aviation support for the all national security agencies. NSOC, established after SAUTT was disbanded.
In an interview, Major (retired) Paul Brown, Interim Director NSOC Air Division, said the crew “flew a total of ten hours” using two of its four helicopters — the Paradice 1 (sikorsky-76AH) and Viper 3 (Bo 105) — to shuttle the injured from Tobago to Trinidad. Nine patients, one Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), one family member, three doctors and two nurses were transported.
NSOC has done casualty evacuations of injured police and soldiers, as well as medical evacuations of civilians, but the exercise which took place over the hours from September 2-3 marked the first time in recent years that “a mass casualty movement” of persons took place between Trinidad and Tobago. Brown said at 7.30 pm on September 2, a call was received from the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management, which was contacted by the Tobago Emergency Management Agency (TEMA).
“After we got the call we liaised directly with TEMA on the ground. That is when the coordination started.”
As more information started coming in, Brown and the NSOC crew readied themselves to respond. The injured persons were being assessed and prioritised by first responders at the Charlotteville Recreation Ground. Brown said this location was “an unstable landing site” and arrangements were made to redirect the landing site to Roxborough.
The site at Charlotteville had environmental conditions which were not ideal for landing and take-off at night. There were high tension powerlines across the field and the easiest way to take off was towards the sea.
Brown said, “but that means the wind would be behind you. That is not a good situation when lifting weight.”
He said based on the site where the accident occurred, the initial movement of injured persons was by road (via ambulance) to an area accessible by helicopter. A decision was made to use the Roxborough Recreation ground instead.
Because NSOC is a paramilitary agency, its helicopters can “get into many areas to do what is necessary.” The two helicopters left their base at Cumuto and arrived at Roxborough at 10 pm to receive the injured. Five minutes later the ambulances arrived. The first four most critical patients, as well as an EMT and one family member, were transported to the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex (EWMSC) for treatment. The helicopters returned to base and refuelled then headed back to Tobago. While this was happening, Brown was notified that all patients would be moved to the ANR Robinson International Airport at Crown Point.
Brown said the helicopters returned to Tobago and landed at 11.50 pm, where Paradice 1 left at midnight with two patients and an EMT and took them to EWMSC, and Viper 3 departed the airport at 1.30 am on September 3 with one patient, a doctor and nurse.
Another run was made by Paradice 1 after again refuelling in Cumuto. It arrived in Tobago at 1.45 am and waited approximately two hours for the patients who had to be stabilised at the Scarborough Hospital prior to airlift transportation. At 4 am, Paradice 1 left Tobago with two patients, two doctors and one nurse. One patient was taken to Westshore Medical, Cocorite and the other to Port-of-Spain General Hospital. Viper 3 made one last trip to Tobago at 4.25 am to return a doctor and nurse from the Scarborough Hospital and was back base at 5.20 am. Paradice 1 was already at base having returned five minutes earlier.
Brown said, “All of the most critical persons were airlifted by NSOC Air Division. The (TT Defence Force) Air Guard would take the walking injured and those released by the hospital.”
The NSOC crew involved in the evacuation exercise comprised Brown, Co-pilot Garth Nero and Aircrewman Philip Buddy on Paradice 1. They were able to move six patients because the size of the sikorsky-76AH could accommodate more persons. David Leader, with Aircrewman Darren Garcia, transported three patients on Viper 3.
Brown said “the maintenance team worked to ensure hot air refuelling (refuelling while the helicopter’s engine is still running) took place and no time was wasted getting back to Tobago.”
The helicopters used were part of the Military Tattoo which took place last month to mark TT’s 50th anniversary of independence.
“When it comes to aviation operations we are the ones doing it,” Brown said with pride.
Asked to comment on how the experience would inform future exercises in which mass evacuation of patients is necessary, Brown said not all missions could be planned, but as far as the Air Division was concerned, “we would have done everything we could have done”.