Alaska's brave, parachuting PJs save a life in remote Red Devil. Aaron Jansen illustration
Bitter winds were blowing snow sideways across a desolate runway in the tiny, dying community of Red Devil, Alaska, on Feb. 1 when the doctors dropped out of a night sky to save a young man fighting for his life.
This just doesn't happen anywhere else in America.
"It was dark. It was windy. It was really cold," Red Devil resident Ed Lepalla said by telephone Friday, and his neighbor's son, 20-year-old Ryan Morgan was in grave medical danger that night. Morgan had undergone a surgical endoscopy days before and now was in pain and vomiting. Doctors in Bethel, a regional hub 160 miles to the southwest, notified the Alaska Air National Guard that unless someone got Morgan started on an IV he might not make it to morning.
A life-saving service in the far north, the Air Guard took this call -- like dozens of others. At 8:30 p.m., according to Maj. Guy Hayes, the 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons launched at the request of the 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center based near Anchorage. Though the rescue squadrons have been involved in some high-profile saves of downed pilots, climbers and adventurers over the years, "this was call was more typical of what they do when they aren't busy training their butts off to rescue pilots downed in combat in hostile places like Iraq or Afghanistan.
In Alaska, the only enemy Air Guard has to worry about is the weather.
When it is benign, they usually stay home. The state has plenty of commercial carriers serving rural areas. Under normal conditions, they can pick up the sick and injured in remote villages, even land on glaciers to retrieve climbers struggling after accidents. The Guard only gets called when the weather turns ugly.
It was crap on Feb. 1. Hayes, in a bit of an understatement, described conditions in a press release as "low cloud cover and unfavorable weather." The reality: a storm was raging across Western Alaska. It would cost one young Alaskan his life. Only hours before National Guard rescuers took off toward Red Devil, 20-year-old Jed Alexie got lost on his way to Toksook Bay, a village just west of Bethel. The friend with whom he had been crossing Nelson Island by snowmachine made it to the village of Toksook Bay, but Alexie did not.
A search was organized in Toksook the following morning. Planes could not fly. Villagers went out on snowmachines. The weather was so bad it drove them back, tough people though they are. Alexie would not be found for a full day. By then, the weather would have killed him. It was the same weather confronting pilots at the controls of an HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter and an HC-130 airplane on the 250-mile flight west from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, to Red Devil, official population 19 and falling.
"There's probably only about 15 here now," Jim Graham said Friday by phone. "The school closed down." There weren't enough students to support it. Once a mining community, Red Devil has been dying ever since the mercury mine closed for the final time in 1971. There were some sporadic jobs in mine cleanup during the years that followed and a little logging was done in the area, but no sort of economy anyone could count on. Graham was in town from Bethel only to shovel snow off the roofs of a couple properties he owns along the Kuskokwim River. He was afraid they might collapse.
"We've got around 5 feet of snow," he said. "We got a lot of snow."
Much of it was blowing around on the night of Feb. 1. It made life difficult for the Guard. Standard procedure in these sorts of rescue operations is to fly to the site in the Pavehawk, pick up the patient and deliver him or her to the nearest hospital or bring them back to Anchorage. The HC-130 flies top cover for the Helo-1 and packs extra gas to refuel the Pavehawk as necessary.
Where's hole in weather?
On this trip, it would need to refuel the Pavehawk before it ever got to Red Devil. The helicopter burned too much fuel probing Rainy, Merrill, Lake Clark and Shellabarger passes in the Aleutian Range looking for a hole in the weather. The pilots never did find a way through into the Kuskokwim River valley to the north. They were, Hayes later reported, "forced to return to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson."
That's when the Guard decided to improvise. The search-and-rescue duty officer for the mission queried the pararescuemen on the airplane -- PJs as they're normally called -- about whether they thought it possible to parachute into Red Devil. He "directed us to get through to see if it was viable for us to execute a jump mission from the HC-130," said Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Maddama of the 212th.
The HC-130 had no trouble climbing up and over the Aleutian mountains, but once over Red Devil, the pilots found the ground obscured by clouds. Nobody was going out the back door of the plane in those conditions, so the aircraft circled until it started to run out of fuel. The plane was down to what the pilot calculated to be its last pass when the PJs, and a suffering Morgan, caught a break.
"Finally on the last flyover," Maddama said, "we could see lights on the landing strip and were cleared to jump."
'We couldn't see them'
Wearing 60-pound packs, he and Tech. Sgt. Dan Warren, a visiting PJ from the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, left the warm aircraft for a bitterly cold, 15-below night with blowing snow. Red Devil was 3,000-feet below.
"We couldn't see them when they came down," Lepalla said. "It was too dark." But the PJs could see their landing zone.
"Fortunately, we were communicating with a ground party in Red Devil, and they used their snowmachines and ATVs to light the drop zone, providing us a reference to safely land," Maddama said.
Lepalla admitted it was a little odd having to help a parachuter, but you do what you have to in rural Alaska.
Technically, the PJs aren't medically certified doctors, but they are highly trained emergency medical technicians, and in emergencies and combat zones they've been known to play the doctor role quite well. In this case, their job was pretty simple: get on the ground and get to Gordon. A handful of Red Devil residents there to greet them were happy to help with snowmachine rides.
"The patient was really sick," Maddama said. "We assessed him and provided medicine for his nausea and vomiting. We also checked his blood pressure, which was pretty low, so we gave him (IV) fluids to get his blood pressure back up."
Then they consulted with physicians in Bethel, who decided surgery might be necessary to save Morgan's life. They suggested the best thing to do would be to take him straight to Anchorage as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, "all the aircraft had returned to JBER because of fuel and weather," Maddama said. "We stayed with the patient over the next nine hours until the search and rescue duty officer could get a HH-60 in there to pull us out ... He would have gone into septic shock within 48 hours if he wasn't treated.
"Tech. Sgt. Warren did a great job as the medic, and it took all three squadrons to execute this mission," Maddama added.
The Pavehawk finally got into Red Devil at 11 a.m. the next day to pick up Gordon and fly him to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage. He was taken from there to the Alaska Native Medical Center and has since recovered. Gordon reported via a Facebook email Friday that he was "OK. It was just bad side effects from meds from the docs in Bethel."
"There's been a lot of excitement in the last two weeks for a little dinky town," Lepalla added.
A fire, too
Just a couple days before the PJs parachuted in to rescue Gordon, the Red Devil Lodge caught fire. It was one of the few still functioning businesses in the community. The newer part of the lodge, which used to be a store, was saved. But the old bar and what used to be the main house of the late Robert Vanderpool, a legendary Bush pilot long known for his service to Natives all along the Kuskokwim, reportedly burned to the ground. Vanderpool died in 2010, but his son, Bob and daughter-in-law Gail, continued to run the lodge and operate an air taxi service out of Red Devil. They could not be reached Friday.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com