Dignitaries award chopper rescue force
There was enough brass to fill an antique shop at Orchard Hall in Elkins last Wednesday afternoon.
A large contingent of military personnel arrived to award local first responders and others involved in the successful rescue of 17 troops aboard a Navy Seahawk helicopter that crashed into deep snow on a remote Pocahontas County mountainside on February 18.
Two flag officers, Major General Allen Tackett, Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard, and Rear Admiral David Anderson, vice commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, were among the dignitaries present for the awards ceremony.
Members of the air crew's chain of command also were present, including Captain Steven Schreiber, commander of Helicopter Sea Wing Atlantic, and Commander Heath Howell, commanding officer of Helicopter Sea Command-26.
Four of the troops aboard the ill-fated helicopter attended the ceremony, including pilot Lieutenant Matt McClure, AWS3 Ben Chellew, AWS2 Thomas Henry and AWS2 Kenny Martin.
Howell served as master of ceremonies for the awards ceremony and invited McClure to lead the assemblage in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
The commander told the crowd that only two of the troops involved in the crash remained in the hospital, one with a broken hip and one with a broken pelvis. Howell said all the troops will make a full recovery, thanks to the determined rescuers.
"Because of you, the 17 on the flight will be able to continue the job they love," he said. "None of them suffered any injuries from exposure."
Each rescue team took turns coming before the crowd and accepting their awards. Commander Howell and Captain Schreiber presented certificates of appreciation from their respective units and Admiral Anderson gave each rescuer a coveted unit coin.
Pocahontas County rescuers receiving awards included members and employees of Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue; Bartow-Frank-Durbin Volunteer Fire Department; Snowshoe Mountain Resort;ﾠ the National Radio Astronomy Observatory; Pocahontas Memorial Hospital and the West Virginia State Police.
Others receiving awards included members and employeesﾠ of the West Virginia National Guard, Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol, Randolph County Emergency Services, Davis Memorial Hospital, Greenbrier Regional Airport and Elkins-Randolph County Regional Airport.
Admiral Anderson spoke about the contribution of civilian first responders.
"If there was any good thing that came out of 9-11, it gave us - the all-volunteer military force - a firsthand appreciation of what the first responders throughout this nation do," he said. "I don't think we fully appreciated what you do and the service you provide and the fact that, just like we are an all-volunteer force, you are also an all-volunteer force and you serve every bit as much as anybody who wears this uniform."
Chellew, a crewman on the downed chopper, said troops were in shock immediately after the crash, but spirits improved when they determined none had life-threatening injuries.
"Once we knew that people were stable, it got better," he said.
The crewman said he was worried the crash site wouldn't be located.
"When we first landed, that was my biggest fear," he said. "I didn't think people would be able to find us. I was worried that we were going to freeze out there."
When a National Guard helicopter flew overhead and made contact, the troops knew rescuers were on the way.
"The morale shot sky high as soon as we saw that Blackhawk because we knew that now, we got a mark and they know exactly where we are - it's just a waiting game now," he said.
The West Virginia National Guard Blackhawk dropped off two medics about a mile from the crash site, but it took the medics two hours, wading through deep snow, to reach the crash site.
The pilot of that Blackhawk, Major Kevin Hazuka, of the West Virginia National Guard, told timeswv.com that the likely cause of the crash was ice accumulation on the helicopter's rotor blades, but the Navy is still investigating the cause of the crash.
On March 15, Representative Nick Rahall introduced a resolution in the U.S. Congress honoring the West Virginia rescue force. The resolution was co-sponsored by representatives Alan Mollohan and Shelley Moore Capito.
A portion of Rahall's resolution reads,
"The remarkable rescue was an outstanding and highly coordinated effort on the part of many highly trained professionals as well as private citizens, who worked under very difficult conditions to reach the crew and personnel on board the aircraft, many of whom had been injured in the crash.
"West Virginians are the best neighbors for whom you could ever wish. It is a truth that has been proven time and again.ﾠ This heroic rescue effort was, thankfully, a rare event, but it was not at all out of character for our State.ﾠ In fact, it was merely illustrative of the best of West Virginia."