West Point aviators, firefighters to the rescue
By Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 6, 2013) — Sgt. 1st Class Trenton Zaragoza was beginning a game of chess with his kids. Staff Sgt. Ken Thompson was making a Sunday dinner for his wife.
That all stopped short when the two non-commissioned officers from West Point’s 2nd Aviation Detachment were called to support a rescue operation in Cold Spring, N.Y., with Chief Warrant Officer 4 Edward Binkowski piloting the UH72 Lakota and Chief Warrant 5 Officer Alan Mack, the detachment commander, as co-pilot.
It was close to 2 p.m. Sunday when the Cold Spring Fire Company and area first responder units were dispatched to Breakneck Ridge, a mountain along the Hudson River—between Beacon and Cold Spring. Popular among hikers, its highest summit reaches more than 1,200 feet above sea level, which is close to where one woman sustained a fractured ankle.
“The terrain at Breakneck Ridge is just short of needing technical devices to reach the face of the mountain,” Mack said. “There are easier ways up but the real scenic way is also a bit more dangerous.”
Upon locating the group of hikers and several failed attempts at moving the injured hiker, first responders determined it was too dark and dangerous to move the injured hiker off the mountain.
Instead, they carried her about 300 feet to the peak where the 2nd Aviation crew performed a hoist/extraction in tandem with several members of the West Point Fire and Emergency Services. Assistant Chief Kyle Innella was the supervisor for West Point FES, with six firefighters to include Jamie Rohner (primary rescuer) and Matthew Stack (assistant rescuer).
Stack and Rohner arrived on the scene via the Lakota to mobilize the broken ankle and secure the woman on a patient mobilization device, or SKED, for extraction. Stack said she had hyperthermia so they wrapped her in blankets with heating pads underneath.
Coincidentally, earlier that day the West Point firefighters had been conducting high-angle rope drills in Cornwall-High Point on 218 with Orange County Tech Rescue Team and could see dozens of hikers on Breakneck Ridge.
“While we were training we noticed there seemed to be a high volume of people hiking and we talked a little about the risk out there,” Stack said.
Binkowski said the terrain is pretty rugged and not an easy climb even in the daylight.
“The section she was in would have required them to carry her down the steep part, or move a couple miles back the other direction over several ridges which could be just as hazardous in the dark,” he said.
Zaragoza, crew chief and primary hoist operator, said her cries could be heard above the sound of the rotors.
“She was in that much pain,” he said.
Thompson, assistant hoist operator, said the hiker didn’t say much on board the helicopter, except answering the questions of the first responder from the West Point FES High-Angle Rescue Team.
“She had a strong grip,” Thompson said. “At one point she grabbed my hand because of the pain.”
There were many support units on the scene, to include the North Highlands Fire Department members and the Philipstown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, but the 2nd Aviation came in with personnel from West Point Fire.
“That’s because we’ve trained with them for so long and they are familiar with our procedures that we primarily work with them,” Mack said.
Four members of West Point’s 2nd Aviation Detachment assisted in a nighttime rescue operation Sunday in Cold Spring, N.Y. Pictured in front of the UH72 Lakota used to hoist/extract an injured female hiker off Breakneck Ridge are (from left) Staff Sgt. Ken Thompson, Chief Warrant 5 Alan Mack, Chief Warrant 4 Edward Binkowski and Sgt. 1st Class Trenton Zaragoza. Photo by Mike Strasser/PV
After a long summer of training exercises at West Point and over the Hudson River, the 2nd Aviation Detachment was called to assist an emergency nighttime operation in Cold Springs, Nov. 3, when an injured female hiker required an extraction/hoist via a UH72 Lakota. (Inset) The aviators began night vision training in 2011 to improve their capabilities to support the community.
““We’ve done numerous training exercises in hoist this summer to prepare for this exact scenario,” Stack said. “West Point is one of the very few career fire departments with access to a helicopter and one of even less that have hoist capabilities.”
The aviators had never trained or supported a mission in that area across the Hudson before, but they’ve certainly flown over it many times en route to West Point.
“We train in the exact same type of terrain on this side of the river,” Mack said. “One mountain here is the same as one mountain there.”
Because of the training conducted between the aviators and firefighters, both units described the rescue as routine.
“Having an experienced crew makes all the difference,” Mack said. “But I believe it would have been routine for even a less experienced crew in that particular instance we were in. Had she been more on the side of the hill rather on top, it would have been more of a challenge and we would have had to be more creative.”
They aren’t the only unit in the region with hoist capabilities but fewer are qualified to do nighttime hoist missions.
“By the time we got the call it was dark and many assets were already tied up with the New York City Marathon,” Mack said. “We were able to help by the fact that we’ve trained for this specifically. The unit constantly trains with hoist and looks for potential missions that could possibly happen—whether it’s with cadets or members of the local communities.”
Although the detachment does not operate on a 24-hour schedule, Mack said it was a “perfect storm” that four highly-experienced crew members were poised and ready to go into action. Mack and Binkowski both have thousands of hours in night vision goggle experience with several hundred nighttime hoists in mountainous terrain in Afghanistan.
The detachment serves the U.S. Academy at West Point primarily to transport distinguished guests—dignitaries, royalty and military leaders, like Tuesday’s visit from the deputy commander of Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. John Mulholland.
The detachment also supports the Corps of Cadets by providing air lifts for the West Point Parachute Team during practice and home football game performances, or finding the occasional lost navigator during cadet summer training.
It’s surprising that just three years ago that their support to this rescue mission, or their response to a massive fire in Rockland County less than a week earlier, wouldn’t have been possible. With support from academy leadership and the vision of former 2nd Aviation commander Chief Warrant 5 John Nailor, the unit has taken on an aggressive training regimen to further support West Point and the communities outside its gates.
The mayor of Cold Spring, J. Ralph Falloon, wrote to Col. Dane Rideout, West Point garrison commander, to extend his appreciation.
“The professionalism displayed by your units was outstanding,” Falloon wrote in an email. “The amount of time and energy, not to mention potential further injury that was saved, could not be measured.”