Miracle in the mist: A December Sunday at Lone Pine

December 2018 Posted in Community, Other, People

by Robert McGowan

There are many spots in the Silverton-Mount Angel area that have colloquial names. All probably have some historical significance. Some represent a community or area like Drakes Crossing or Bethany. Others are more localized like Rocky Four Corners. Lone Pine is one of the localized ones and represents the intersection of Highway 213 and Mt. Angel-Scotts Mills Road. I am guessing at one time it was marked by a single tall tree; probably not a big mental leap on my part.

The history of Lone Pine no doubt involves Native Americans, early Oregon Territory settlers, wagons and horses. That early history has given way to state highways, paved roads and motorized transportation. This story involves the latter and needs to be documented
and shared. It is a piece of Lone Pine history involving a miracle. The year,
or even decade, I don’t recall. In contrast though, I can pinpoint the month down to December and the day of the week
to Sunday.

It was a December Sunday morning at Lone Pine.

Those two calendar items are tied to the fact that on that particular Sunday morning I was standing in my kitchen wearing a U.S. Army Class A uniform. As a long-time member of the Army National Guard, we were required to wear that uniform and stand inspection once a year. Most units selected the December drill. It was considered a holiday time and a chance for family to be invited to see where dad/mom/husband/wife went once a month. Sunday was the preferred day and included a holiday meal.

Remembering the uniform I was wearing in my kitchen that morning, it had to be a December Sunday.

I normally am an early riser. Early enough to shower, read the paper, drink three cups of coffee, have breakfast and still make it to drill early. The weather adjusted my timing that morning. Fog so dense it could easily take me two to three times as long to make the 23-mile journey to my unit drill site. I found that out when I trekked to the street to retrieve the paper. I don’t remember for sure, but I likely read the news and sports, the rest would have to wait. One cup of coffee with one to go. Decided against the one to go as I was wearing a dress uniform. I could get all the coffee I wanted once I got there, quality marginal, quantity unlimited.

I was in the kitchen putting final touches on my departure, my wife likely telling me to drive carefully and my response something along the line of “instead of my normally bad driving.” She knew it was foggy and no doubt felt better for having related the obvious. The pager on my belt went into alert mode. Not an unusual occurrence. I was a long-time volunteer with the local fire district, a senior member who had been doing emergency response long enough that the alert pager no longer injected my system with adrenaline. Most calls were of a medical nature. I was at one time an Emergency Medical Technician and maybe I still was, I don’t remember for sure. But by that time I was either a captain or chief officer and rarely got to touch a patient, as somebody had to be in charge and that was often my role.

Whatever the call was, they no doubt could do it without me. Nobody was indispensable, myself included. All the fires got put out, all patients treated and transported no matter who showed up. Sunday morning, most of the volunteers were home, manpower would not be a problem. I had a long hazardous drive ahead of me. They could do this one without me.

Alert tones finally stopped. After years of listening you pretty much knew who had been alerted by the tones. Three stations, duty officer and the ambulance, could be serious. “Respond to the area of HW213 and Mt. Angel-Scotts Mills Road for a single vehicle in the ditch, single female occupant, unconscious.”  It was time to reconsider my departure to drill. My National Guard supervisor would understand. Given the location, I could be the first one there, not in the direction I needed to go and it would take me awhile in the fog, but I was the closest. Those further away had the same time multiplier: fog. Decision made, I shed my tie and Class A jacket; my fire turnouts were in my truck.

The ride to the scene was unremarkable except for the time it took. Being able to see only a few feet you run the risk of running off the road, running into someone, or being run into. Only fools and fireman were out this morning. I got to the appointed intersection. Dispatch had told me they believed the scene was south of the intersection in the northbound lane. I turned south and about a block down found a car in the ditch. I gave dispatch a description of the scene that pretty much matched what they already knew. First things first, I grabbed a half dozen flares and my flashlight and started walking south. Closing the traffic lanes would come when there were more men and equipment. Right now I hoped flares would do the trick to keep me from getting hit. I retraced my steps and laid out more flares northbound.

It was time for the patient. The car was in the ditch at an awkward angle. I moved down and found the driver’s door. I don’t remember if I had to open the door or if the window was down. Either way, I was next to her and she appeared to be about 20. I got no response when talking to her. My worst fears were unfounded when I found she had a pulse and was breathing. However, looking back at me when I checked her pupils were a set of “Raccoon Eyes”, a medical indicator for a possible skull fracture. She needed to be in a trauma center ASAP.

I crawled out of the ditch to talk to dispatch and gave them a patient status and asked them to check the availability of the Life Flight helicopter out of Portland. In the meantime, other units were arriving, orders were given regarding extrication and road closure. We trained for this and did it often. Sometimes it was easier than this one, sometimes harder, but it always got done. This one was going to be tough because of the patient condition and position of the car.

Flying critical patients by helicopter was often the difference between life and death. Flying turned transportation hours into minutes and expanded the “golden hour” for trauma care. My military career gave me a good perspective on their use. For over two decades I had worked on, crewed and sometimes flown helicopters. I had participated in rescues, medivacs and burning holes in the sky. I knew their capabilities and limitations. This morning it was not a question that the patient “should” go by helicopter, it was a question of “could” she go by helicopter. Fog is not a friend of flying low to the ground. It creates a deadly hazardous environment that is unacceptable. The patient was likely destined for a long, slow ambulance trip.

Extrication was underway and was tightly integrated with patient care from the ambulance crew. Evaluations and requirements of both the patient and vehicle were being exchanged. Plans of attack developed and equipment collected. My job included making sure they had all assets on scene for the job. Medics agreed with my initial assessment that a helicopter was her best option.

Dispatch called with the Life Flight response. They could fly in the Portland area without problem but south of Portland was fog at least as far as Corvallis. I requested they be activated, if they could find somewhere to land between the scene and Portland, we would load the patient and come to them. Life Flight launched from Portland and headed south. Long minutes passed, extrication continued. When they got within radio range the helicopter crew called. Typically a landing zone (LZ) would have been established with a designated LZ officer to talk to the helicopter. Not this time. A LZ can’t be established in dense fog. They were talking direct to the on-scene commander. There was no good information regarding options to land, but I asked them to continue as patient extrication was going to take time.

Geographically we were located on the valley floor but right at the base of the hills that rose up and formed the basins of both the Abiqua Creek and Butte Creek. I asked the helicopter crew if they could find a place up in the hills above the fog. If they could land, we could find them. They responded that was not an option. Hard to imagine fog this dense and hundreds of feet deep. Normally they would find the scene by getting close and getting vectors from the LZ officer when they could be seen or heard from the ground. That morning was different. I heard them and gave them my best guess on our relative positions. When I heard them fly directly overhead and I advised them of that. Now they knew where we were but that really didn’t change the situation.

Extrication was being completed. I saw the patient being lifted from the ditch. She was secured to a backboard head to toe. Bags of IV fluids were being held aloft, blankets were being tucked around her to finally fend off the cold and damp fog she had been exposed to since her vehicle left the road. She was ready to go with her best option for survival still in orbit overhead. Three hundred feet or three hundred miles were the same right now, with no LZ to close the gap. She was going to go by ground.

Then it happened. The divine response to a single request of someone on scene or maybe the collective subconscious request of the whole crew? Fifty yards west of the scene, in a flat dirt field many acres in size, a bright spot was forming. The recently risen sun was breaking through. The flight crew spotted it also but to them it must have been the opposite, a dark spot in a farmer’s field forming in a sea of white. I contacted the pilot and confirmed for him the open spot was virtually right next to the scene and was completely void of any obstacles and from my perspective, he was cleared to land. Land he did.

It was an amazing sight to see this noisy mass of rotating components drop through the fog into view and settle on the dirt.

Normally the medical flight crew would depart the LZ and evaluate the patient before loading but in this case the flight medics and ground medics had already passed all pertinent information via radio.  The hole in the fog that became the LZ wasn’t likely to last, they needed the patient. If the hole closed around them, they were staying until the fog cleared again. Ground crews passed her across the ditch that still held her vehicle and started to the aircraft. The flight crew met them and the exchange was swift and efficient. In seconds she was secured in the aircraft and the doors closed. I confirmed to the pilot all ground personnel were clear.

He pulled his collective control to gain altitude but had to make a spiraling departure up thru the hole to avoid entering the fog walls. We lost sight but could still hear the aircraft and could tell he had changed direction for a northern departure to Portland. As quick as the aircraft had lifted thru the hole in the fog, the hole disappeared. It was filled in by the rotor turbulence, or its existence no longer required. Either way it was gone, the sun again blocked by the dark and dense fog. The pilot confirmed it from his perspective. No trace of the hole left.

The fire crews and medics from Mount Angel, Scotts Mills and Silverton stowed their equipment, getting ready for the next call.

The hole in the fog had come and gone in minutes. Its existence matching exactly the time required, its appearance matching exactly where it was needed. A minute later and the patient likely would have been strapped in the ambulance and the helicopter released. In the hundreds of square miles of fog it was positioned right next the young woman who needed it. It didn’t form over a treed area that would have rendered it useless. It formed over level dirt, completely clear of obstructions.

It was a miracle on a December Sunday morning at Lone Pine.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.