July 4, 2013

Daring Katahdin helicopter rescue was unprecedented

An injured hiker is lifted off the Maine mountain in a full-body 'screamer suit.'

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

Ned Hamara, the 62-year-old Texas hiker rescued by heicopter off Mount Katahdin on Monday after a boulder fell on him, recovers at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Wednesday.

Photo courtesy Community Relations / Eastern Maine Medical Center. Video courtesy of Dana Francey.

click image to enlarge

A 62-year-old Texas man is shown being airlifted off a hiking trail on Mount Katahdin on July 1 after a large rock fell on him. He is recovering at a Bangor hospital.

Photo by Jensen Bissell

A man who was waiting with his family for the passage to clear stepped forward to help. He was an emergency room doctor.

"He came down to the little hole I was in and was able to put my shoulder back into the socket, and able to drag me up on top of the rock," Hamara said, "At that point I realized something was seriously wrong with my left foot. When I was on my feet, the pain was excruciating."

The doctor sent his wife and children ahead and joined Francey in escorting Hamara down.

"During our walk down, my shoulder came out three more times. The doctor put it back in three more times," Hamara said.

At the base of a section called the monkey bars, for the steel rungs imbedded in a steep rock face, another hiker got a cellphone signal and called 911.

"The call was dropped almost as soon as we got the information to who we called," Francey said.

But about two hours later, they encountered Yves Baribeau, a park ranger who had set out to meet them after getting the call. He had a plastic boot that Hamara strapped onto his injured foot. They made for an open expanse on the trail.

Meanwhile, the park had called the Maine Forest Service.

The Forest Service has seven helicopters, which have been used for rescues on flat sections of Katahdin -- not the kind of terrain where Hamara was. The Forest Service decided a year and a half ago to develop its short haul system, and it put it to use Monday.

Crowley, the chief pilot, said the helicopter took off from Old Town around noon. Chris Blackie was the pilot, with Lincoln Mazzei as crew chief and Tom Liba as rescuer.

The initial rescue spot was too dangerous.

"It was a very small spot," said Crowley. "We can get into a small spot, but it was surrounded by tall, scraggly dead trees. It was just dangerous for a rescuer on line."

Baribeau was told to move Hamara to a better spot. Meanwhile, the helicopter left for refueling.

When it returned, Hamara was perched alongside Rescue Rock.

Blackie slowly lowered the Huey, trying to keep it from shifting in any direction that might throw Liba, hanging 100 feet below, into a tree or rock.

The helicopter pilot can't see the line, so he relies on directions from the crew chief.

Hamara said, "The helicopter is so low, it's like a hurricane on the ground, with all the debris flying around."

Francey said Hamara, who had been mostly cheerful to that point, turned serious and silent.

As the helicopter descended, Liba was spinning. Finally, he touched ground and disconnected from the line.

Liba pulled Hamara to the top of the rock and put him into the red screamer suit, which Crowley described as a full body web of straps with a carabiner in the front to hook to the line.

Liba hooked himself and Hamara to the helicopter, and they lifted off.

"He says, 'You're about to be in for a ride of your life,'" Hamara said. "We just take off straight up in the air. I thought I was going to be pulled up. No. They just dangle you from a helicopter."

It was more exhilarating than frightening.

"It was a nice little ride. I got good scenery. It was perfect," he said.

Flying 40 knots over the countryside, they landed at Caribou Pit, an unused gravel pit, 15 minutes later and met an ambulance.

Hamara was taken first to Millinocket Hospital for X-rays, then to Eastern Maine Medical Center. He was told that the metatarsal bones -- toes -- in his left foot had shifted to one side and come apart from the tendons. He had surgery on Tuesday.

The doctor said the surgery went well but he faces at least a month in a wheelchair.

"I'm not really happy about it," he said. "This is going to drive me nuts."

But once his rehabilitation is complete, he said, he plans to hit the trail again.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com 

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