Hams involved with Medivacs

Andre Kesteloot andre.kesteloot at verizon.net
Sun Sep 4 19:49:52 CDT 2005

Sent: Saturday, September 03, 2005 10:44 PM
Subject: [RACES] Hams involved with Medivacs

Local ham-radio operators help rescue effort

Tallahassee ham-radio operators took part in the daring helicopter  
rescue Friday of about 1,500 patients and staff from two New Orleans  
hospitals besieged by darkness, dank water and gunfire.  "There were  
a lot of heroes in this operation," said Chuck Hall, 52, the HCA Inc.  
division vice president in Tallahassee after the evacuation of  
patients and staff from Tulane University Hospital and Clinic ended  
because of nearby gunfire.

The Tulane facility is an HCA hospital, and Hall said he knew the day  
after Katrina hammered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast that the damage  
made the evacuation inevitable.  "They had no power, very little food  
and the water was rising because of the levee breaks," Hall said.  He  
quickly chartered about 25 helicopters, including medivac helicopters  
from Sacred Heart Hospital and Baptist Hospital in Pensacola.

 Katrina had laid waste to the Big Easy in a manner few ever would  
have imagined. There was no power, no clean water, no food and, worst  
of all, no
dependable lines of communications.  The first 17 flights out of New  
Orleans were medivac choppers bringing patients to West Florida  
Regional Hospital in Pensacola. Each chopper returned with 750 pounds  
of food and medical supplies for the anxious patients and staff at  

Bob Peterson, chief operating officer of West Florida Regional, said  
the first efforts to remove patients and staff Tuesday often were  
dangerous.  "The (helicopter) pilots reported five near misses,"  
Peterson said. Bad weather and a jury-rigged landing pad - the  
hospital's helipad was under water - were playing havoc with flights.

Worse still, there was no way Hall and his staff could get  
information to pilots and no one on the ground to guide them onto the  
top floor of a four-story parking garage that was serving as a  
landing zone.  The elation after the first lift-off from the  
beleaguered hospital Tuesday quickly faded, Hall said. Worse, city  
conditions were deteriorating.  Looting and gunfire erupted and  
100,000 stranded, scared residents became a force ready to spill into  

Enter the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Club, Florida Division of  
Emergency Management and some old-fashioned ingenuity.  State  
Emergency Management officials suggested Hall contact the local ham  
radio club to solve the communications dilemma.

Urged by rapidly rising water - 8 feet deep in places - and the  
growing knowledge that New Orleans had become a drowning pool, the  
ham operators fashioned a satellite reception device atop an 8-story  
building in downtown Tallahassee.  Then three of them - Theo Titus,  
Gene Floyd and Bill Schmidt - all boarded a helicopter in Tallahassee  
Wednesday and headed for New Orleans.

Atop the garage at Tulane, they set up a generator-powered ham radio  
with a satellite uplink.  By Tuesday afternoon, the choppers were up  
and running, and Hall and his co-workers in Tallahassee were able to  
give directions to pilots, but only on paper.  Charlie Lien, a radio  
club member in the Tallahassee command post, explained the  
communication system this way: the three operators would radio  
Tallahassee via the satellite uplink.  When the broadcast was  
received, workers would use two-way radios to get the instruction to  
HCA personnel in the building - the jury-rigged satellite receiver  
would only work at the top of the building.

HCA officials would decide where the next load of patients was to be  
taken - most were initially moved to the closed New Orleans Airport -  
and those instructions were relayed via walkie-talkie back to the top  
of the building, up to the satellite and down to the top of the  
Tulane parking garage.

But there was one more step.  The ham operators couldn't talk with  
the civilian and military helicopters taking part in the airlift so,  
as each chopper landed, landing instructions in longitude and  
latitude were written on a piece of paper and handed to the pilot.   
Once airborne, the pilots would radio their destination to Federal  
Aviation Administration officials, who were directing what amounted  
an aerial version of 5 p.m. rush-hour traffic.

Landings were dangerous. Pilots unfamiliar with tall buildings around  
the garage had to put down on top of a parking garage never intended  
to serve its makeshift function. Rotor blades whirled dangerously  
close to buildings.  Then, Hall said, another hero emerged.

John Holland, a LifeNet employee who was helping with the evacuation,  
jumped out of a medivac chopper and began working as a flight  
director, giving pilots signals as they threaded their way down to  
the concrete deck.  "He worked on the deck 36 hours straight," Hall  
said. "He also was instrumental in relaying information to us about  
the resources that we needed."  Military helicopters, including  
Blackhawks and a CH-47 Chinook, also joined the airlift.

Spirits in the Tallahassee command center soared. The military  
helicopters could carry more patients and staff than the medivac or  
other chartered helicopters.  But they were dashed when, within  
hours, two of the helicopters, including the Chinook, were pulled out  
to help in other parts of a city that was rapidly degenerating into a  
war zone.

"We were tired and exhausted," Hall said. "We could hear the noise  
and activity in the background." The "activity" in this case meant  
sporadic gunfire.
Fog, rain and darkness were constant companions.  But the aerial  
caravan kept rolling until about 1a.m. Thursday, Hall said. Darkness  
made it too dangerous to fly. The civilian pilots did not have night  
goggles and the military pilots, even though they had the night  
goggles, were disoriented by the dark that had buried the city.

By Thursday, it was clear two public hospitals nearby - Charity  
Hospital and University Medical Center - also were in dire straits.   
Desperate patients from Charity and staff members there were wading  
through the floodwater to reach the Tulane facility.  Boats from the  
the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife appeared and helped  
ferry the critically ill to the garage through water fouled by  
sewage, debris and bodies.

Hall found more heroes in the garage.  "They were taking care of  
patients, often in the dark, with no way of knowing when the next  
chopper was coming," he said.  All through Thursday until about  
midnight, patients and staff from two hospitals, often in groups of  
two or three, left the chaos below and were ferried to the airport,  
to other hospitals, to safety.  By Friday morning, Hall said about  
300 people, including another 30 patients from Charity, remained. All  
Tulane patients were safely out.

The day brought more heroes.  A Sacred Heart medivac worker left his  
helicopter so a doctor and nurse could board and leave. He was not  
included in the final headcount and remained alone at the hospital  
for several hours.  Hall said the man finally got the attention of  
police and was airlifted out late Friday afternoon.  As the day wore  
on, reports of gunfire and advancing chaos strained pilots, patients  
and personnel.

Time was working against the Herculean effort. Pilots can fly only so  
many hours until they have to rest. Helicopters need gas and  
maintenance. Sick, frail people cannot last long in stifling heat and  
humidity.  Hall said the warning from the National Guard came shortly  
before the last helicopter lifted off: Gunfire was less than a mile  
away. The airlift had to end - now. Smoke from a nearby fire drifted  
across the landing zone.

"We felt ecstatic," Hall said, his voice weary after nearly four days  
with little sleep. "It was just an overwhelming relief to have, what  
we believed at the time, the last people out."  But across the  
street, at Charity and University Medical, there was no cheering.  
Patients and staff remained. Hall ordered the helicopters to continue  
the airlift - at HCA's expense.  He said Federal Emergency Management  
Agency officials were taking over the rescue effort.

Late Friday night, Hall said the rescue effort was a small victory,  
but bigger obstacles remain. Hospitals have to be rebuilt. Patients  
have to get well.
And New Orleans, the immortal and slightly immoral Belle of all  
Southern Belles, still faces a dark future.  "We had to overcome some  
small hurdles today," Hall said, "but the big hurdles are in front of  

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