Fire chief commands chopper rescue
Thursday morning, February 18, a Navy helicopter lifted off at Fort Pickett, Virginia, carrying 17 troops to Camp Dawson in Preston County for navigation practice at the rugged, mountainous training area. The chopper would never arrive at its destination and what began as a training mission turned into a real-life struggle for survival.
Flying across Back Allegheny Mountain in winter weather about 1 p.m., the chopper crashed onﾠ the side of a 4,254-foot hilltop near the old logging camp at Spruce - miles from the nearest open road.
An hour and a half after the mishap, a military chopper dropped off two medics a mile down the mountain from the crash site, but it was another hour and a half before they reached the crash site. Due to the severe weather, the troops could not be evacuated by air.
Thanks to the toughness of the troops and the professionalism of a local rescue team, all the soldiers and sailors were safely evacuated by noon the next day.ﾠ Injuries ranged from broken bones to a bruised hand, but all the troops survived the harrowing ordeal.
Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue was initially alerted at 3 p.m., but the firefighters were told to stand down shortly thereafter because - they were told - the crash site was farther south, near Lewisburg.
About 6 p.m., Pocahontas County 911 alerted Shavers Fork again and informed Chief Shannon Boehmer that the the crash was not near Lewisburg, but in a remote area on Back Allegheny Mountain about five miles northwest of Cass.ﾠ
Boehmer immediately gathered his team and planned the rescue operation. The chief decided the best way to get to the crash site would be to follow a railroad grade along Shavers Fork. But the winding rail grade was blocked with snow.
"We knew it was going to be six to seven miles through four to five feet of snow," Boehmer recalled. "Walking wasn't really an option."
Boehmner had no vehicles that could make it through that much snow, but knew somebody that did - Snowshoe Mountain Resort. The resort uses snowcats and snowmobiles for both slope maintenance and recreation.
Used for grooming ski slopes at night while skiers sleep, snowcats use wide metal tracks to glissade across deep snow. Boehmer thought snowcats and snowmobiles would be perfect for getting his team to the crash.
Snowshoe management immediately approved Boehmer's request for two snowcats and eight snowmobiles and dispatched the machines to the fire station. Along with the equipment came two volunteer snowcat operators.
Meanwhile, the military had established a command post at NRAO. Boehmer maintained communication with the military as he organized a rescue team at Shavers Fork. The team consisted of personnel from Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue, Cass VFD, Bartow-Frank-Durbin VFD and the Civil Air Patrol.ﾠ Boehmer dispatched the team about 7:30 p.m.
"From our station to the crash site took about three and a half hours," he said. "The guys had to do a river crossing and, from there, it was four to five foot snow - not just drifts -ﾠ but snow all the way. We put two snowcats in the front, which plowed out an area that allowed the snowmobiles to operate.
"Snowmobiles are great in the snow but when you get into four and five foot snow, they tend to sink. Snowcats are great. They get right up on top of it and push everything out of the way. It was pretty much the ultimate piece of equipment to have out there."
But the two snowcats encountered an obstacle that only one could negotiate.
"There was a twin trestle that one of our groomers could not get across," said the chief. "It was just too big. We left a groomer there and the smaller groomer and the snowmobiles went on from there."
After the rescuers reached the area near the crash site, Boehmer, communicating with the military command post from the fire station, instructed the rescue team to watch and listen. After the troops fired flares in the sky, the rescue team pinpointed the location.
"When we located them, we realized they were halfway up the mountain," Boehmer said. "It took our guys about 45 minutes with the equipment - backpacks and snowshoes and everything they had to carry up, it took about 45 minutes."
The rescue team arrived at the crash site about 11 p.m. and found the troops in relatively good spirits.
"They were really good," he said. "Once you see the rescuers coming, you're in a little bit better spirits than you were before that. They all really wanted to get out of there. A lot of them were dazed and a little confused but most of them had started helping each other. Those who weren't hurt bad had jumped right in, like military personnel do, and started helping those who were less injured."
The evacuation began and the most seriously injured troops were taken down the mountainside by sled to the smaller snowcat.
"From the crash site itself, they were brought down the hill by the responders, by sled," said Boehmer. "They were put on the smaller groomer. From the smaller groomer they were brought back down the tracks and transferred over, by foot, across the trestle, onto our larger groomer, which actually had a large heated box on the back of it.
"From there it was brought all the way back out to where our ambulance had access, which is right down here [near Shavers Fork fire station]. They were put on an ambulance, brought to our station here. They were re-triaged by our medical personnel and the military medical personnel and then transported by ground."
As the weather improved, the last four crash survivors were evacuated by air.
Boehmner said he is unclear as to what caused the confusion about the crash location.
"There was some confusion," he said. "We were actually notified at 3 o'clock that afternoon the first time," he said. "We were toned out and then told to stand down right after that because the crash was in another county, closer to Lewisburg. Three hours later, we were re-toned. There was some confusion in the beginning and I'm not sure where that confusion came from."
Boehmer said the rescue team performed extremely well in difficult conditions.
"I thought our guys did an outstanding job," he said. "Most of our guys work ski patrol, as well. They've all been trained in the outdoors. They've all been trained, medically, to work in the wilderness. I thought the responders from the military and from the other fire departments did an outstanding job."
The fire chief said the snowcat operators deserved special praise.
"There's a couple guys I'd like to mention," he said. "Bill Jones, of Snowshoe Mountain Resort - he's a groomer operator. He drove the smaller groomer all the way to the site.ﾠ Bobby Sharp, he was in the second groomer. Those guys were with us from the beginning of the incident to the very end of the incident. We couldn't have done it without those two individuals. We don't know how to operate that equipment, especially not as good as these professionals did.
"They were all for it. They found out that it was our military personnel that were down and they jumped right onboard and they didn't let anything stand in the way."
Boehmer also recognized the generosity of Snowshoe Mountain Resort and operations manager Dave Hubert.
"They said, 'whatever you need, we will do anything it takes to help you guys out' and Dave Hubert was right next to me in the command center the whole time."
Captain Steve Schreiber, commodore of the Navy's Atlantic Helicopter Sea Combat Wing, commended the local responders for their successful rescue.
"I'd like to thank the West Virginia National Guard and the local responders for their heroic work," Schreiber wrote in a press release on Friday. "Their efforts were extraordinary and took place under the most difficult of situations. The rescuers had to traverse more than three miles from the nearest road through heavily-wooded and mountainous terrain to reach the crash site. A special thanks to the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort for providing Snowcats that enabled first responders to reach the site."
The Navy has secured the crash site and is investigating the cause of the accident.