Emergency Personnel Battle Rising Tide, Rugged Landscape, and Thick Fog to Save Fall Victim
On Saturday, April 18, a small group of hikers and dozens of emergency personnel including two helicopters worked desperately against an incoming tide, darkness, and heavy fog to save a man critically injured in a fall on the remote and rugged Lost Coast Trail between the mouth of the Mattole River and Shelter Cove.
At 7:12 P.M. emergency personnel responded to a call from hikers who had discovered a fall victim with multiple fractures along the Lost Coast Trail near the beach at Miller Flat, about 8 miles north of the small coastal town of Shelter Cove. Several volunteer fire departments and Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue quickly gathered the proper equipment and began heading towards the incident.
“With the description of the injuries the man had sustained, we knew we needed to move quickly to get him to a high level of care,” explained Diana Totten, spokesperson for Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue (SHTR).
“We knew this would take a lot of manpower,” she said. “The Lost Coast is very rugged and nighttime was coming on. We needed all hands on deck to do the rescue safely.”
Meanwhile, the Emergency Command Center of Cal Fire continued maintaining contact with the people that were with the victim. A small group of hikers had discovered the victim towards evening. With the incoming tide, they knew the victim couldn’t stay where he was. Soon waves would be breaking over where he had been found.The hikers built a makeshift litter and packed the victim to higher ground. There they stabilized his injuries as best they could with items they had on hand. They even splinted some of his broken bones.
“They saved his life,” said Totten. “They came across a man that was severely injured. They dropped everything they were doing and, realizing he was in imminent danger, they made a makeshift stretcher and were able to pack him to higher ground just as the tide was reaching him.”
Totten spoke highly of the hikers’ efforts. “Without a lot of medical supplies, they treated him,” she said. They were good about giving directions on where they were. They built a fire to keep him warm. They were the beginning of saving his life.”
Rescuers quickly developed and put into place several rescue plans so that if one was unable to be carried, out another would already be in motion. Reports from the side of the injured man worried medical personnel.
The first plan was that a Coast Guard helicopter would fly in to the area to pick up the injured man. “One of the quickest and safest way to rescue someone in this kind of rugged terrain is a Coast Guard helicopter,” Totten explained. However, when the Coast Guard arrived, Totten said, “it was foggy and the helicopter couldn’t achieve the rescue at that time.”
Another plan involved trying to reach the victim by driving up the beach with a special 6 wheeled ATV. Cheryl Anthony of Shelter Cove Fire Department said, “We had the patient’s friend, who was the one who called 911, with us in the station. She had dropped him off at the beginning of the trail earlier in the day, and was at Black Sands Beach to pick him up, but he texted her that he was injured, so that’s how it all started.”
The Southern Humboldt Technical Rescue team (SHTR) under the command of Chief Kai Ostrow developed a plan to reach the victim by ground. The rescue team responded to the Smith-Etter Road which is a 4-wheel drive road currently closed for the winter season that allows access through the King Range to the beach at Spanish Flat.
Once the approximately 10 crew members reached the beach there, they began hiking almost 10 miles south to the side of the victim. By this time it was dark, a heavy fog smothered the beach and high tide pushed the ocean up against the cliffs. In addition, the crews needed to carry several hundred pounds of rescue equipment and medical supplies with them. “There were times that the rescue involved getting very close to the water and doing it safely. The danger level was very, very high,” Totten said. “These are all volunteers who had all missed supper on a Saturday night to go hiking on the rugged Lost Coast to save someone who had an accident,” she added.
Eventually, the crews reached the wounded man’s side. The EMT’s with the crew had better medical equipment were able to relay a better description of the man’s injuries to medical personnel. Totten said, the crew on site realized that with the man’s injuries “they realized that they needed to expedite getting the patient out as rapidly as they could.”
However, because of the high tide it was virtually impossible to move him. Nonetheless, the crew did the impossible. They packed the victim with specialized medical equipment and hauled him to an area that that at the time wasn’t foggy in hopes that a helicopter crew could gather him from that area.
“We tried to get the rescue helicopter from the Coast Guard back but by the time they arrived from Arcata the fog had rolled back in,” Totten explained. “They did heroic efforts but, with the fog and weather conditions, they were unable to achieve the rescue.”
At that time, Totten said, “we realized we would have to pack the victim to where we could reach him with ATV’s or some sort of vehicle.”
By 2 A.M., the crews with the victim were exhausted. Rescue Chief Kai Ostrow requested additional ground forces to help pack the patient from Miller Flat back to Spanish Flat. Shelter Cove Fire set their 6-wheeled ATV through Smith-Etter Road. Crew members from Petrolia Fire and Honeydew Fire Shelter Cove Fire, and Telegraph Ridge Fire responded.
“These people hiked up the beach to help pack the patient,” said Totten. “The specialized ATV was able to make access to where the emergency crews were packing the victim. The ATV was able to expedite the transport of the patient to an awaiting medivac helicopter on Kinsey Ridge.”
“I think our community will be proud to know that while they were home asleep, well-trained firefighters and rescue personnel were achieving a successful and very complex rescue on one of the most rugged stretches of coast in the world,” said Totten. “Their professionalism and courage saved a life.”
Totten said there were many people behind the scenes supporting the crews that were on site. “The Emergency Command Center in Fortuna I can’t say enough about them,” she said. “Doing these kind of rescues aren’t a typical every day thing and they were right there troubleshooting every inch of the way….People were up all night supporting us with communication links and the ATV that Shelter Cove has is absolutely incredible.”
Stressing that the Lost Coast is lovely, Totten also wanted to point out that people needed to be careful how they approached the area. “The Lost Coast is an absolutely rugged and beautiful place and yet over the years we’ve seen a lot of tragedies there, too. Hikers, campers, and tidepoolers need to take proper precautions,” she warned.
“On my behalf I want to say that each firefighter is so awesome,” she added. “They worked through the night. It would have been about 16 hours before they got home after putting their gear together.”
Totten stressed that they don’t get paid, “This is what we do for free. And by doing fundraising–putting on dances and BBQ’s–we pay for the equipment so if you are supporting the fundraising you are helping with the rescues.”
Earlier Chapter: Dramatic Rescue!