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Airmen fight to free people trapped in interstate pileup

Nov. 10, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Airmen from the 48th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., stand by a 19-vehicle accident Oct. 29. The airmen extracted five people from vehicles, coordinated four medical helicopter flights and organized ground transportation for about six injured individuals.
Airmen from the 48th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., stand by a 19-vehicle accident Oct. 29. The airmen extracted five people from vehicles, coordinated four medical helicopter flights and organized ground transportation for about six injured individuals. (Air Force)
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When a massive pileup involving 19 trucks and cars left people trapped in their vehicles, eight airmen from the 48th Rescue Squadron instinctively went into guardian angel mode.

“We assumed, basically, from looking at the crash that people were trapped,” said Caleb, a combat rescue officer who was there. “With our training and our skill level, we thought this was an appropriate opportunity to be able to utilize that stuff and save some lives.”

For security reasons, the airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., asked to be identified by their first names only.

Six pararescuemen, one combat rescue officer and the group’s logistics chief were returning from parachute training on Oct. 29 when they passed the pileup on Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak, Ariz. Seeing that medics had not yet arrived, they quickly decided to put their training to work.

In order to get to the people who were hurt, the airmen had to cut through a barbed wire fence that separated them from the crash site, Caleb said. Once on scene, they started to triage the wounded, who suffered from injuries including broken bones and internal bleeding, and moving people away from spilled fuel.

The injured people ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s, said Dave, the pararescuemen team leader. One woman in a car that rolled over was five months pregnant.

“It was kind of a mixed scene of people in vehicles, people half-in vehicles and people just walking around the scene — some were injured and some weren’t,” Dave said.

For 15 minutes, the airmen from the rescue squadron were the only people on scene with medical training, he said. To get some people out of their cars, the airmen improvised tools with what they had.

“Guys were grabbing bars off the side of the road to pry doors open,” he said. “At one point, we used a tire iron or a crowbar out of one of the vehicles to bust a window to gain access to one of the patients and do a better assessment on him. Eventually, we were able to pry the door and open the door and pull that individual out.”

For one hour and 25 minutes, the airmen treated a total of 20 people before enough emergency responders had arrived on scene to take care of everyone, Caleb said. Four of the airmen had never been deployed, so the incident was the first real-world scenario they faced.

“You never know how you’re going to react to real-life situations before you’re in it,” said Wes, a pararescueman who had never responded to a mass casualty event before. “Most of the training that I have so far has been simulations and not real patients, so this is the first time I’ve dealt with a such a catastrophic event where people are actually injured. It was a good experience to find out that you can stay calm under pressure and do what you’re trained to do.”

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