DISASTER IN THE DESERT - Bus crash survivor and Air Force helicopter crew that saved her are forever linked

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Elaine Hardy lay in the overturned bus and knew she was in trouble.

Her left leg hung out of a shattered window, and her foot dangled grotesquely, seemingly attached only by the skin. But that wasn't the worst of it. Her right leg looked as if a Nile crocodile had clamped down and twisted it over and over in its notorious death roll until the limb tore open from the top of her thigh to just below the knee. Her femur poked out of the thigh like two pieces of a broken broomstick where it had been snapped in half.

If help didn't arrive soon, she would bleed to death. 

When two "old friends" reunited in Boulder City, Nev., in late June, they weren't getting together to enjoy the glitter and gambling in Las Vegas, just 20 miles up the road. They had a lot to talk about. The last time they'd seen each other had been 17 years ago, on July 21, 1992, and not under the best of circumstances. Elaine Hardy fought for her life that day when a bus loaded with Girl Scouts she was chaperoning lost control and crashed while heading down Mount Charleston, the highest peak in the Mojave Desert at 11,918 feet. Col. John W. Blumentritt had been one of her rescuers.

A captain and chief of safety assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., at the time, Blumentritt had been one of the pilots who flew Hardy out of peril. The HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crew consisted of two pilots, a flight engineer and two pararescuemen.

That fateful day began when Hardy volunteered to escort some Girl Scouts to a camp on the scenic mountain. Her daughter, Jamie, was a 7-year-old Brownie at the time, and Hardy felt she would be more comfortable if escorted to the campsite by her mom. After the drop-off, Hardy agreed to chaperone some older Girl Scouts who were returning home from the camp.

"On the way up Mount Charleston, we could see the old charter bus was having problems," Hardy said. "The air conditioning didn't work -- not good since it was the middle of summer in the desert. But it kept chugging along. It was annoying, but when you're on public transportation, you just assume that everything is going to be fine."

However, on the way down the mountain, irritation turned 
to terror.

With 41 Girl Scouts, ages 10 to 12, on board, in addition to Hardy and the bus driver, things went terribly wrong. Hardy, who had been sitting just behind the bus driver, kitty corner to him, noticed the bus picking up speed. She saw the driver pushing on the brakes ... no response. Then he desperately tried to downshift the vehicle, but it became jammed in neutral.

The bus driver tried to warn everyone of the impending impact.

"I was the only other adult on the bus, so I stood up, turned around and called out, 'Hold on and put your heads down!' " Hardy said.

Just as she sat back down, the driver aimed the bus at a pile of gravel at the side of the road that had been placed there for some pending roadwork.

"He had to try something to slow us down because we weren't going to make it down Mount Charleston with no brakes," Hardy said.

They hit the mound at nearly 70 mph, but instead of slowing the bus down, it launched it in the air as if jumping off a ramp.

"I thought, 'This may be the day I die,' " she said.

The bus flew 80 feet and came down on the front right corner where Hardy was sitting. Then it flipped on its side and slid down the roadway nearly the length of a football field before it came to rest on its roof.

Inside the mass of metal, the girls had been jostled like Yahtzee dice.

"The first thing I thought was, 'I'm still alive. I can't believe I'm still alive,' " Hardy said. "My next thought was, 'How many of the girls have died?' "

As the dust settled, Hardy took in the chaotic scene. She saw girls frantically scrambling to exit the mangled bus.

"Some of the girls were in shock and started running down the road. ... (It seemed) they were going to run all the way back to Las Vegas," she said. "The ones who remained calm were trying to soothe the ones who were more hysterical."

She didn't know it at the time, but while 40 people on the bus were hurt, only four had serious injuries (hers being the worst).

Soon, Hardy was alone in the bus. She could see one girl outside wildly pawing at the dirt to dig out her foot, which was trapped under the 26,000-pound vehicle.

Partially buried in a pile of gravel and rubble, Hardy took stock of her horrendous injuries and realized she wasn't going anywhere under her own power.

"I remember wiggling my toes and thinking, 'OK, that's a good sign,' " she said.

But with her entire right thigh filleted, she still felt she might bleed to death. She jammed her hand into a pressure point near the gaping wound to slow the gushing blood ... and waited.

While Hardy's fate hung in the balance, Blumentritt 
and the other pilot had just ordered lunch at the officers' club 
at Nellis when their alert beepers went off. With one last 
hungry look, they left their trays of food behind and rushed 
to the squadron.

Joined by the flight engineer and two pararescuemen, the crew headed toward their helicopter, which basked quietly in the Nevada sun. Minutes later, the twin engines of the Pave Hawk thundered to life, and the four rotor blades began to turn. The pararescuemen checked and rechecked their lifesaving equipment. Blumentritt, strapped in the copilot seat, shook a chart from his flight bag and plotted a route to the crash site.

"We knew someone had called in a bus crash, and that our commander was assessing details, weighing options and considering risks before clearing us for flight," said Blumentritt, who is now Air Education and Training Command's director of safety.

Seconds after ordered to launch, the 10-ton chopper 
lifted off in a cloud of dust and turned toward Mount Charleston.

"En route the radio chatter was endless," Blumentritt said. "We were getting conflicting reports. People on one side of the bus were calling in and saying there was no one seriously injured. But on the other side of the bus, it was a whole different world. Those people were calling in and saying there were three or four victims seriously injured."

Amid this commotion on the radio, Blumentritt appreciated the efforts of everyone sending information, but knew the crew of five -- not the people chatting on the radio -- would "garner the benefits of good decisions or bear the accountability of bad ones," he said. "Success or failure was up to us."

When the team arrived on-scene, they swooped over the jumbled mess and noted the chaos below.

"It was like a movie scene -- bus upside down, wheels in the air, people scurrying about," Blumentritt said. "I initially wondered how many people might be dead, but then quickly shifted my mind toward the job at hand.

"We were landing in an unfamiliar area with many hazards. We had to consider winds and terrain. It was tough to judge the height of the many Joshua trees. Plus, we wanted to get as close to the victims as possible, but not so close as to cause more damage and injuries from the force of our rotor wash."

Once the rescue team selected a safe spot to land and the angle of the approach, Blumentritt and the rest of the crew peered out the windows and doors of the aircraft to ensure they wouldn't hit any trees.

They landed, and the pararescuemen quickly exited the aircraft.

"By then there were some ground emergency crews on scene and they passed on two critically wounded patients to us," said Mike Davis, who was a staff sergeant at the time and now serves with the Las Vegas Fire Department. "There was a woman (Hardy), whose thigh had been ripped apart and foot mangled. Amazingly, she was as calm as could be."

They splinted her leg and strapped her to a stretcher. Then, they packed the wound full of gauze and applied pressure, and wrapped the bone ends to protect them as well. They did the same thing for her foot. The pararescuemen also hooked her up to an IV and oxygen.

The other patient, a young girl, had a concussion and neck injury. She also was in shock.
"The Girl Scout tried to sit up while we were in flight to the hospital," Davis said. "She saw the woman's leg, moaned and went pale. She was more freaked out by the lady's injury than her own. I don't blame her, though. I didn't think there was any way they'd be able to save that shredded leg."

Hardy had her doubts as well; nevertheless, hearing the helicopter rotor blades was music to the piano teacher's ears and helped lift her spirits.

"I was so happy to hear the sound of the helicopter coming in," she said. "Then I remember seeing these two guys in their green flight suits and dark helmets with black visors (the pararescuemen). I couldn't see their faces, but they were still a welcome sight."

As the PJs moved the two patients on board the HH-60G, Blumentritt glanced back and saw the floor of the aircraft become immediately drenched in blood. He felt a sense of urgency, but had to keep his emotions in check and focus on the next phase of the rescue mission -- taking off from the dangerous, remote area.

"It wouldn't do anybody any good if we panicked, made a mistake during our departure and crashed the aircraft," Blumentritt said. "We followed our checklists quickly but closely and then safely made a beeline for the hospital."

They were directed to take the crash victims to University Medical Center in Las Vegas, but soon learned of another challenge ahead.

"We were told the helicopter pad on top of the hospital parking garage couldn't handle the weight of an HH-60G," Blumentritt said. "Not only that, but the Pave Hawk is way more powerful than the typical emergency medical service helicopters that used the pad. Our rotor wash could blow people and gurneys right off the roof."

So the local police blocked off an intersection near the hospital, and the rescue crew landed their bird on a street not far from the Las Vegas strip.

"Sixty minutes earlier we were worried about landing near Joshua trees, gullies and an overturned bus," Blumentritt said. "Now we found ourselves squeezing between buildings, watching for wires, catching some wind gusts, avoiding vehicles and hoping no one would run up to the helicopter too soon. Not only that, debris from the street, an old rope or wire, or even the sheet from a gurney could get sucked into the rotor blades -- very hazardous. Let's face it; you don't really get to practice landing on the streets of Vegas during training missions."

After being carefully off-loaded from the helicopter, an ambulance rushed Hardy to the nearby hospital. When medical technicians wheeled her into the emergency room on a gurney that had been stained crimson, it was easy to see why she needed seven units of blood.

Doctors doubted they could salvage Hardy's right leg. An inch of her femur was gone, and gravel was ground into the open wound. Miraculously, between her orthopedic and plastic surgeons, they managed to save the limb, even rebuilding the missing piece of bone. But that was just the beginning of her recovery. Hardy spent nearly eight weeks in the hospital on total bed rest. When she returned home, she progressed to walking with crutches over the next four months. Then she traded the crutches for a cane, which she used for the next six months.

A full year after the mishap, the determined woman finally took her first unaided steps.

"I made a very good recovery," she said. "I have some big scars and a large part of my thigh is missing, but today I'm even able to water-ski -- one of my favorite pastimes."

In a letter that Hardy, a wife and mother of two, wrote to the helicopter crew three months after the bus mishap, she said, "I'm the 36-year-old lady that you transported following the bus crash on July 21. I wanted to thank you for your help and let you know how I'm doing. It was a welcome sound when I heard your helicopter land. I'll be forever grateful for your assistance and excellent care while taking me to the hospital that day."

Seventeen years later, she was just as grateful. She hugged Blumentritt with tears in her eyes, and her voice cracked as she whispered, "Thank you, again."