By Tom Vines
Published Monday, July 9, 2012
Editor’s Note: A May 20 rescue in Northeast Washington State received nationwide media attention, but there were notable errors in the media reports. This account corrects those errors and provides for rescuers interesting information left out of the media accounts.
On May 19 at 1709 HRS, the Snohomish County Police Auxiliary Services Center (SNOPAC) received a 9-1-1 call from a male caller who reported that his son had fallen into the river above Wallace Falls and had made it to the opposite shore “just above the big waterfall.” He said the boy was in a secure position, but was stuck and no one on scene could reach him.
The 13-year-old male had been on a hike with his family and a friend at Wallace Falls State Park when he took off his shoes and waded into the Wallace River to cool off. The water looked calm in that section of the river, but as soon as he got knee-deep, he lost his footing and the strong current took him downstream toward the falls.
He was carried over a small waterfall and was only a few feet from two more waterfalls, the third being a 265' drop, when he grabbed onto a small rock outcropping. There, he managed to pull himself out of the water and cling to a narrow ledge.
At 1713 HRS, the Sheriff’s Department dispatched Snohomish County Search and Rescue (SAR), paging out for a full team response for a 13-year-old male stranded on a ledge on the east side (opposite the side with trail access) of the Wallace River, just above the middle falls. Additionally, at 1716 HRS, the department dispatched Snohomish County Fire District 24, located in the town of Goldbar.
The first of the ground teams to arrive were SAR team members just returning from rope rescue training, but were not all the way back into town yet.
At 1746 HRS, The Sheriff’s Department also dispatched its SnoHawk 10 helicopter, a heavily upgraded UH-1H “Huey” class. Equipped with a hoist, its primary assignment is search and rescue; its secondary assignment is law enforcement. SnoHawk 10 was en route at 1843 HRS. In addition to the two pilots and crew chief, on board were two rescue technicians. It was hoped that the helo could do a hoist extraction of the individual.
The helicopter arrived on scene at 1951 HRS. After hovering over the site, they saw that they could not reach the young man with the hoist. Additionally, there was no easy way to access him by land. He was on the side of the river with no easy access and in steep, forested terrain. He was in a small alcove, with his back pressed against a steep rock overhang, and was unable to stand. The ledge he balanced on was so narrow that when he crouched down, his toes were in the water. The river churned furiously toward the falls, with a water temperature of about 40 degrees F.
There was no nearby open space where the helo could set down, so they inserted the two rescue technicians by hoist some 200 yards downstream from the boy’s position in steep, rugged terrain. These rescuers carried medical gear and rope gear. Both were also accomplished climbers and carried prepackaged kits containing dynamic climbing rope, anchor material, carabiners and hardware. They had to work their way uphill to reach his location.
Reaching the Patient
The two rescue technicians’ intent was to gain access to the young man and secure him there so he would not fall back into the river and go over the waterfall. Then, a ground team would bring in high-angle equipment to raise him up from the river.
Ground teams were deployed to both sides of the river, but the majority of the resources were on the river’s west side, opposite from the boy, because it is accessible by road and trail. One team of seven was instructed to cross to the east side of the river, but the task wasn’t easy. The snow melt season was in full force so the river was running high; the normal crossing place could not be made safely, so the team—which included a Washington State Parks employee familiar with the terrain—had to work their way farther upstream to find a safe crossing. There was no place to walk across, so they rigged a rope across the river to take advantage of the eddies. All seven made the crossing safely.
Once across the river, they faced relatively steep terrain, but eventually were able to take advantage of an old logging road and move downstream to set up a rescue system.
While teams were crossing the river above the falls, the two rescue technicians inserted by helo hoist used the two dynamic climbing ropes they brought with them to gain access. They had hoped to reach the boy, secure him with a harness and await additional help.
But when they reached the boy’s location, they faced an approximate 20' overhang. Starting above the boy, one rescuer would rappel down to the boy while the second rescuer belayed him. They made three attempts by three different routes to try to get to him. The first two were unsuccessful. On the third attempt, just as one tech was about to reach the boy, his weight-bearing line was cut by the overhanging rock and he dropped into the water and went over the smaller falls. But he was caught by his belay rope, keeping him from being swept over the larger falls. He swung downstream and was able to make his way back up to the east bank and back up the ravine. With their equipment now damaged, the two rescue techs decided to not make further attempts to reach the boy for the time being.
However, crews on the west side were able to provide the boy with some comfort. One of the rescue swimmers—the highest level of qualification for the water rescue team members—threw across the river to the boy some warm clothes, a blanket he could sit on to protect him from the cold rock, an insulated jacket, a hat and some food. These supplies helped protect the boy against hypothermia.
Note: When doing this, the rescuers gave the boy very clear, repeated instructions that if the things being thrown weren’t easy to catch, he should not try to grab at them, but rather just let them fall into the water and be swept over the falls. But nothing was lost over the falls, not even any energy bars
The Water Rescue
It was after dark when the team of seven reached the two rescue technicians. The operation would have to be done using head lamps.
The team that had crossed the river had brought two 60-meter-long, 11-mm, low-stretch rescue ropes, one 30-meter-long, 9-mm low stretch rope used for anchors and handlines, and an assortment of carabiners and other rigging gear. The teams approaching on the opposite side, which would eventually total 30 people, brought additional rope and rigging gear.
After discussing the situation with the helo technicians and teams on both sides of the river, the rescuers came up with five rope options of increasing complexity. Their priorities were:
- To avoid inadvertently pulling the boy off his ledge and into the water, because that certainly would be fatal if it happened.
- To ensure that once rescuers had the boy connected into their rope system, if he did fall off into the water, he would not be able to pull the rescue attendant in after him—so they could not be directly connected together. They did have a common link, but it was fairly long, some 10 or 12 feet back up the focal point of the rope system. The idea was that this was long enough so that if either of them went into the water, that wouldn’t necessarily result in the other one going in as well.
The first option attempted was to simply lower the attendant over the side, down the same route the rescue tech had followed once before. Because the attendant they would lower was also a rescue swimmer, the idea was that he might be able to work his way through the water successfully to get to the boy, secure him in a subject harness and bring him straight out. But they knew that this might not work because the water was very deep.
To lower the attendant, rescuers set up a two-rope system. They anchored all the elements of the system to large trees and added a high-directional attached to a large tree. The mainline lowering would be controlled with a brake bar rack with a hyper bar. The belay was constructed of tandem Prusiks. At the lowering ends of the lines they connected both ropes with interlocking long-tail bowlines, with extra length on the mainline tail. This long-tail would have an adjustable Prusik where the subject would be initially connected. The tail of the belay line would be attached to the rescuer. Additionally, they attached to the focal point of the long-tail bowline a “jigger,” or a miniature 4:1 haul system. The rescuer would attach himself and it, and raise and lower himself so he could control his position, whether the system was stopped or moving.
If a rescuer or the boy fell into the river, there would be a considerable load on the system, so they also needed the ability to raise immediately. So they rigged a piggyback haul system that was attached forward of the brake bar rack on the mainline. It was initially set up as a simple 6:1 MA, but it could be converted under load to a compound 12:1, and then to a 48:1 if needed to pull the subject and/or attendant out of the waterfall. They rigged edge rope protection secured by Velcro sleeves. The rescuer communicated by a waterproof radio with an external mic.
On the first lowering of some 35 feet, the rescuer got to the bottom and confirmed that he could not get across the river. It was too deep to see the bottom and flowing fast. He needed some sort of “stepping stone “to get across. Fortunately, there was a solution.
Earlier, the team had requested a ladder as a contingency. This came in the form of a 24' ground ladder provided by the fire department and brought up the trail on the west side of the river. There the team anchored the foot of the ladder and then attached a lightweight mainline pulley system to raise and lower the ladder like a drawbridge. On the opposite side, the team anchored the head of the ladder using a remnant of the failed climbing rope. In addition, west side rescuers attached a separate to the latter to control its side-to-side positioning.
Nobody would go back and forth across the length of the ladder, but the top of it would serve as a stepping stone over the deep water for the rescuer to reach the boy. Using it, the rescuer who had been lowered was able to reach the boy and place the rescue harness on him. The harness had a three-point connection, one around the waist and one around each leg, and was pre-rigged into the rope system via a Prusik loop on the long-tail of the mainline. So, as soon the boy was in the harness, they had him secured.
The potential for the rescuer to fall in the water remained, so as he moved the boy toward the ladder, then across the tip of the ladder, the rescuer moved the Prusik up the mainline tail so his connection was getting shorter as he went. Once he stepped across the ladder and onto the rock, his connection was short enough that even if he fell from that point, he wouldn’t have made it all the way back into the water.
The Rope Rescue & Extraction
Now that the boy was across the river, the challenge became less about water and more about a high-angle rope system. The team then did a conventional raise of the attendant and boy to the top. The rescuer and the boy were on top at 0136 HRS.
The team EMT did a medical assessment and found the boy had little more than cuts and scrapes on his feet. He was given warm clothes, a little something else to eat and a chance to warm up.
Rescuers still had to ascend about 300 feet of forest floor that sloped at a 45-degree angle and was covered with downfall and thick brush. The boy had, of course, taken off his shoes when he first waded into the river and now had only the pair of socks thrown across to him by rescuers—not good for walking in rugged terrain covered in twigs and pine needles. So the rescuers opened their packs and managed to collect among themselves a several pairs of socks, which the boy layered on his feet—not boots, but better than bare feet.
At last light in the evening, the helo team had collected some equipment for the rescuers to make an overnight bivouac. This cache included sleeping bags, tarps, insulation layers and even a box of Snickers. Although the helo was unable to land, it hovered as low as possible over the extraction site and dropped the gear out in piles on the ground.
After scrambling up through the forest, the team with the boy reached the bivouac site at about 0200 HRS. The helo crew was ready for the extraction at 0600 HRS, so after a few hours of sleep, the rescuers on the ground began organizing equipment and people to fly out.
Because the helo could not land at the bivy site, the crew used a short-haul technique. They set down at the closest LZ, attached their ATEP short-haul system and clipped in a helo tech. Once over the site, the helo hovered while the helo tech clipped in three additional rescuers or gear. They then flew to another LZ about 5 miles from the river rescue site, which was vehicle accessible.
First out: the boy and the technician in charge of his medical care. The helo then made two more evolutions to get all the people and gear back out to the LZ. The boy was short-hauled out at 0607 HRS, then transported by vehicle from the LZ to the Command Post, where he was reunited with his parents. The call was cleared at 0927 HRS.
Sources: John Morton, water rescue coordinator and rescue swimmer for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Unit, and field team leader on the Wallace Falls operation, provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from accounts of the incident in The Seattle Times.
LESSONS LEARNED/LESSONS REINFORCED
John Morton makes the following observations:
“It’s impossible and inappropriate to train for every high-risk, complicated technical rescue contingency. Instead, develop a solid collection of individual building blocks that can be assembled and operated at mission time. For example, we used a tensioned belay that is the same as we use on a very long system, and a haul system in front of the brake rack like we would use to pass a knot on mainline. From the perspective of each station operator, they were able to perform techniques they have trained on, even though the overall rescue problem was unique.
“As early as possible, identify the one or two key hazards that absolutely have to be addressed for a rescue solution to be viable. On this mission, our key consideration was mitigating the risk of the subject pulling the attendant into the moving water column. Although the rigging was more complicated by protecting separated fall lines between attendant and subject, we were adamant that our solution address this hazard. We set aside several more conventional rigging options that did not adequately address this key risk until we developed a solution that was acceptable. On another operation it might be protection from rope damage, or rockfall or rotorwash in a parachute canopy. Whatever the key problem areas on each mission, identify them and deal with them as key issues every minute of the operation until everyone is back over the edge.
“Clear and constant communication is key, as always in a high-risk technical rescue. However, it requires discipline to avoid play-by-play commentary just because everyone wants to appreciate what is happening at the end of the rope. Keep the communication open, but still available for time-critical radio calls. For example, we were poised for what seemed a very long time waiting for a radio call from the far side crew to immediately raise our attendant and subject. Although we were eager for a running description of what was happening over the edge, keeping the channel open for time- and safety-critical traffic kept the commentary at bay.”
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