AVALANCHE ANGELS - Airmen rescue injured hiker from treacherous mountain snow slide

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Staff Sgt. Jason Weiss smiled as he thought of Holly's long blonde hair, big blue eyes and farm girl charm. A year ago he'd asked her to marry him. He remembered proposing in the traditional fashion - on one knee, begging and pleading. Today, Dec. 4, they were to be wed in a small ceremony in Spokane, Wash.

Only one problem. ... He wasn't going to be there.

His eyes narrowed and his smile disappeared as he threw open the door of the hovering UH-1N Huey. A frigid cocktail of wind, rain and snow sucked the warmth out of the helicopter as if Jack Frost himself had just stepped on board. Weiss peered at the vast snowy landscape of the tree-lined mountains below. A man was down there somewhere ... injured and alone.

Weiss had good reason for missing his wedding. As an independent-duty medical technician, he served as part of a four-member search and rescue crew from the 36th Rescue Flight out of Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., that saved 38-year-old Mark Thompson near Snow Lake north of Snoqualmie Pass (45 minutes from Seattle) Dec. 4.

Thompson, of Bellevue, Wash., had been stranded in the mountains for more than two days after getting swept up in an avalanche that fractured the tibia and fibula in his lower left leg Dec. 2. His wife, 33-year-old Stacia Thompson (also of Bellevue), and his best friend, 38-year-old Craig Stanton of Everett, Wash., were buried in the same avalanche and died of asphyxiation, according to the King County Medical Examiner.

According to Sgt. John Urquhart, a spokesman for the King County Sheriff's Department, the trio had been hiking in the Snow Lake area when the avalanche struck without warning.

"A combination of new snow followed by rain makes it real treacherous here," Urquhart said.

He said the hikers had been in the mountains for three days and were on their return trip when the weather changed and caused the massive slide.

"They were coming downhill with Thompson in the lead," Urquhart said. "Stanton followed about 20 feet behind, with Thompson's wife still another 20 feet back."

Thompson told the Sheriff's Department that he heard a scream and turned to see the tons of snow swallow up his wife and best friend. An experienced hiker, Thompson was able to "swim" out of the avalanche, but not before he sustained a broken leg.

"He told us he searched for his wife and his friend, but couldn't find them," Urquhart said.

Hampered by the shattered limb and the onset of hypothermia, Thompson had to give up the frantic search and go into survival mode. When the trio didn't return from their excursion on schedule, Thompson's father alerted authorities.

Enter Weiss and the team from Fair-child, which also included Capt. Amanda Somerville, the aircraft commander; Capt. Evan Roth, the co-pilot; and Tech. Sgt. Devin Fisher, the flight engineer.

When Weiss got pegged for the mission and called Holly, he said she didn't get angry and never complained.

"We've been dating for two years, so she's used to it; I'm in one of the most deployed career fields in the Air Force," said Weiss, who started as an emergency medical technician in Los Angeles, where he grew up. "She said, 'Be careful. Hurry home.' ... That's one good woman."

Fisher said the mission proved challenging from the get-go.

"Initially, we were supposed to be picking up flood victims off of rooftops," the Fort Plain, N.Y., native said. "So we configured the aircraft for a mass rescue. We took half the gas we normally would because with less gas, the Huey can carry more people -- it's a weight and power issue. We wanted to be able to fit as many people in the aircraft as possible."

When the mission changed, fuel became a concern.

For the pilots, the gas shortage wasn't their only worry.

"We were flying in some bad weather with rain, snow, fog and poor visibility," said Somerville, who hails from Chicago. "The poor weather caused strong turbulence, which can make it feel like you're losing control of the aircraft. At times it was like someone was shoving us from side-to-side. It can get scary."

Roth, who navigated much of the flight, agreed.

"When flying in a valley, winds get stronger because they are squeezed through a smaller area -- kind of like putting your thumb on the end of a hose to create more water pressure," the Marlton, N.J., native said. "It's not easy to fly when you're getting thrown around a bit. But Captain Somerville did a great job."

At first, civilian ground search and rescue forces told the Huey crew that they would be able to pick up an injured survivor and two bodies in a large parking lot near the base of the mountain. So Somerville landed at the extraction point, and Weiss and Fisher exited the Huey.

They returned empty handed.

"The ground crews hadn't been able to get to the victims," Fisher said. "Now instead of just a simple pick up, we were on a full-fledged search and rescue mission. We had no radio contact with the survivor, no coordinates ... just a map with a little dot on it and maybe 20 to 30 minutes of gas left."

With Fisher and Weiss hanging out of the doors of the aircraft trying to spot the survivor, Somerville and Roth made several passes. Just when it looked like they wouldn't find the victim before the need to refuel became too great, Roth and Fisher spotted the injured hiker.

"Visibility was so poor that I couldn't see a thing out of my side of the Huey," Weiss said. "But those guys can spot a gumball at 200 yards."

Fisher dropped a smoke grenade to mark the area, but the avalanche snow swallowed the grenade up, making it useless. They found a hole in the trees and lowered Weiss to the ground, roughly 80 yards from the victim.

"When I stepped off of the rescue hoist, I sank up to my chest in the snow," the 5-foot-10, 210-pound medic said. "I had to crab crawl for about 40 yards so I wouldn't sink in the snow."

The last 40 yards he was able to walk in about waist-deep snow.

"When I got to the victim, he was hungry, dehydrated and on the verge of being hypothermic," Weiss said. "His leg was badly broken."

Weiss said he hated to move him without a stretcher in fear of further damaging the leg. But before he had left the helicopter, Somerville had warned him that there was no time to waste. Low on gas and with the weather worsening, the Huey crew could be forced to leave them.

"I asked him how much he weighed, and he told me 176 pounds," the Airman said. "So I put him over my shoulders in a fireman's carry."

Nobody would call the burly Airman a slouch. Back at Fairchild, Weiss and his teammates go through a rigorous physical training regimen eight times per week that includes swimming, sprints, distance running, pull-ups, sit-ups, pushups, flutter kicks, weight training and more. To relax he plays rugby on a local team. Nevertheless, trudging 40 yards through waist-deep snow with a full grown man on his shoulders pushed him to his limits.

"My legs burned, my lungs hurt, and I was slowing down," Weiss said.

So the medical technician laid Thompson on the ground and tied his legs together with the broken one on top. He then pulled up the hood on the man's jacket, grabbed his arms and dragged him across the snow like a sled. After another 40 yards, Weiss reached the extraction point out of breath. He packed snow around Thompson to stabilize him and to elevate his broken leg.

On his hands and knees, huffing and puffing, with steam rising from his sweaty brow, Weiss's head and shoulders suddenly slumped.

"Damn!" he whispered under his breath as he peered into the sky.

"I heard the whir of the Huey's engines, and it was a very sad sound," Weiss said.

He explained that when a Huey is approaching, it makes a distinctive "whop, whop, whop" sound. But when it is going away, it makes a whirring noise.

"Even though I was disappointed, I remember thinking, 'They made the right choice to leave us behind.' Hell, by this time, we were in a full-blown whiteout blizzard, and they were low on gas," he said. "You never want to put the helicopter at risk and endanger the lives of the crew. It just makes the situation worse."

Weiss began to survey the terrain to figure out where the best spot would be to build a snow cave shelter. He'd also need to get a fire going. Who knew when the crew would be able to return? He'd probably be spending his wedding night stranded on the mountain in a blizzard.

Then, suddenly ... "Whop, whop, whop, whop ..."

"That was like music to my ears," Weiss said with a chuckle.

Inside the Huey, Somerville had decided to make one more pass over the extraction point. After that, they'd be forced to leave the area to refuel.

"We spotted Jason and his patient, which was a big relief," Somerville said. "At that point, I handed the controls over to Captain Roth, because he had better visibility and better references into the extraction point."

Roth still needed the flight engineer to talk him into the tight spot.

"Sergeant Fisher hung out the cabin door to make sure we could get as low as possible without hitting anything," the co-pilot said.

While Roth held the aircraft in a hover at 180 feet, just above the trees, Fisher lowered the rescue hoist. As he was lowering the hoist, he lost communication with the pilots.

One of the aircraft's generators had gone out!

"Water had gotten into the nose compartment of the aircraft," Somerville said. "It caused the generator to go out, which was a concern; because if one shorted out from the water, the other was at risk. If both generators went out, we would lose our instrument readings. That wouldn't be a disaster in clear weather, but you need your instruments to safely fly out of the fog and clouds."

As it was, the clouds had gotten so low that the rotor blades sliced through one as if spinning cotton candy.

Fortunately, the other generator never failed, and communication was restored.

"I was lucky enough to set the forest penetrator (hoist) right next to Jason's feet," Fisher said.

Normally, Weiss would request a litter, and the crew would hoist them out one at a time. But time was a luxury they did not have. He flipped the paddles down on the forest penetrator and climbed aboard. He then secured Thompson for the ride up to the Huey and did his best to protect his patient from the stinging raindrops, which were propelled by the rotor wash at some 110 mph.

Once in the helicopter, Weiss tended to the victim, while Fisher helped guide the helicopter out. Roth turned the aircraft back over to Somerville, as she had better visual references to take them safely out of the area.

Weiss said Thompson's core temperature had lowered to 93.5 degrees. But by the time they airlifted him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, he was nearly re-warmed at 97.8 degrees.

After handing Thompson off to the hospital's emergency medical staff for surgery, Weiss returned to the Huey. The crew then headed to Boeing International to refuel, and from there, went to McChord AFB, Wash., where they stayed on alert for three more days.

On Dec. 7, Weiss and Holly Sweeney finally exchanged vows at a small gathering of family and friends in Spokane. Holly wasn't bitter about the delay.

"He does such amazing things," she said admiringly. "I have to share him."

Airman 1st Class Kali L. Gradishar of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs at Fairchild AFB, Wash., contributed to this article.