by Warrior Poet
Biographic Essay, another war story.
| If I recall correctly, it happened on the first of September. Kadena Air Base, which was the first assignment of my Air Force career, had many different types of aircraft assigned to the base, including HH-3 helicopters. This model was being used as a rescue helicopter, but on September 1, 1993, a crew member of one of the HH-3 helicopters was the one in need of rescue.
At the time of the HH-3 incident, I was just a young Airman and was new to the career of firefighting. Riding the P-10 crash rescue truck was also a new experience for me. The rescue truck’s main responsibility was to extricate personnel from aircraft or burning buildings on fire and to give emergency medical care when necessary. I had hardly ever heard about emergencies much less had to participate in one. I loved riding the rescue truck because of the rush it gave me. This truck had the most potential for giving me the rush I loved to experience. That day in particular gave me a gigantic rush, but when it was all over, this even gave me an experience I would never forget.
On this day, the rescue truck was out on the flightline doing errands and getting ready for typhoon Yancy that was about to hit the island. The two other rescue crew members, Senior Airman Turner and Senior Airman James, and I were moving extra fire trucks to shelters in order to keep them out of the weather. Just as I was about to pull a truck out, I started to see people jumping out of trucks, and I also heard and saw chunks of debris hitting the same vehicles that people were abandoning. I was extremely confused. What was going on? By this time, Senior Airman James was driving back up to where Senior Airman Turner and I were. The both of us jumped back into the truck, and when Turner drove to where we needed to go, I learned in a hurry exactly what had happened.
There it was! There was the cause of all the flying projectiles. There, in front of us, was a helicopter that obviously looked wrecked. Its engines were still running; its rotor blades were still spinning. The helicopter itself was turning around in circles and bucking up and down wildly. Unbelievably, this extraordinary site didn’t hold my attention. The man lying on the concrete in front of our truck had captured my full attention. There was a group of ground crew personnel huddled around the prone person. Turner and James reached him before I did. One of them yelled back for me to bring the medical kit and the oxygen since I was still at the truck bunkering out. I knew I had to react as quickly as I possibly could. In a matter of moments, I had the med kit out and placed on the ground near the man being treated. That’s when I actually saw the man everyone was concerned about. Some of the details are still quite vivid, and some of them are blurred to vague memories. This person lying on the cold ground was nearly cut in half, obviously by a piece of dislodged rotor. I remember seeing his left arm just hanging by a small piece of skin and muscle, and his chest area was in the same condition. For some unknown reason, I remember looking at his face and seeing that his teeth seemed blue. Actually, there were a lot of things that had turned blue over most of his face. That man was the first experience of death I had as a firefighter. During the whole ordeal, he was just a person. That was all; just a person we had to help but couldn’t. After the accident, that man became Technical Sergeant Wade with a family he’d never see again.
In those few short minutes we spent examining that unfortunate man, we were beginning to realize he was beyond our capabilities. Also, about this time, I remember hearing the Assistant Chief yelling over the radio for rescue to get in there and shut the helicopter down. I really don’t know if it was necessary for him to actually give us that command. In my opinion, I believe the three of us would have tried to shut down the HH-3 anyway. I believe any of the firefighters there that day would have done the same thing. Even before the Assistant Chief started telling us what to do, we finally concentrated on the out-of-control helicopter and saw there was still someone trapped inside. The pilot was being thrown around in his seat as if he were riding a bull at a rodeo. He would have been safer on a rodeo bull.
The three of us got back into the truck and drove closer to the helicopter. When we were relocated, Turner and I were bunkered out, and he told me to follow him. Airman James hadn’t bunkered out yet so he was behind us by a few moments. Without thinking twice, the two of us ran to the rear of the violent aircraft. I can vaguely remember seeing other fire trucks taking positions around the helicopter as I was running. That is about all I can recall on the actions of the other fire department vehicles during the whole ordeal. Even though I can’t remember exactly what the other crews did that day, their actions were just as influential in not only saving the pilot’s life, but quite possibly the rescue crews’ as well.
When we reached the tail of the aircraft, I helped Airman Turner into the back anyway I could. It wasn’t easy considering the helicopter was still bouncing up and down uncontrollably. Once he was in, I started to follow him in, but he turned around and told me to stay back. I did exactly what he told me to do. I scooted back away from the chopper. Thinking back, I guess I shouldn’t have scooted back so far. From my position, I can still painfully see the rotating rotor blades. They were barely hanging together and looked as if they were going to fly apart at any second. Running up to the helicopter was frightening enough, but watching what was left of the rotors spinning precariously scared me beyond words. I kept thinking one of those things was going to come loose and do me the same way they did Sergeant Wade. I would have been safer staying behind the rear of the aircraft. This would have also allowed me to keep an eye on Turner. I could only briefly spot him through the front of the aircraft as he attempted to extricate the pilot.
What seemed like seconds later, Airman James ran by me and jumped into the aircraft with a surge of energy. Once the two airmen had worked their way to the front, they immediately concentrated on shutting the helicopter down. This was literally impossible. Turner had tried already, but there were no controls left, only dangling wires. The rotors had ripped off the top front portion of the aircraft where all the controls for shutdown were located. Realizing the effort was futile, both the rescue men concentrated on getting the injured man out of the death trap they were in. Just getting out was quite an accomplishment. The helicopter was still running and still very unstable, and to complicate matters even more, there was a concrete light pole embedded half way through the airframe of the chopper. The pole had left a gaping hole in the half it had entered through. That hole was a major danger and left only a very small space to maneuver out through. Airman Turner and James were up to the task and started closing the distance to the rear with the pilot in tow.
It was about this time when Technical Sergeant Neilson and Staff Sergeant K entered the picture. I hadn’t seen them coming until after Sergeant Neilson had nearly knocked me over as he came by. I followed the both of them to the rear of the helicopter again. By the time the three of us got there, Airman James and Turner were reaching the tail end of the raging machine. They handed the pilot out to us. The pilot was finally out of the helicopter, but he wasn’t out of danger yet. Sergeant K, Airman Turner, and I carried the limp form as the five of us ran for cover away from the debris cannon.
We all took cover behind a nearby truck, were and ambulance crew took over to prepare the injured man for airlift to the nearest hospital. Of all things, he was airlifted by another helicopter of the same type. I really couldn’t say how long the whole thing lasted. It seemed like everything was in slow motion. About five minutes after we had cleared the helicopter, it finally shut itself down with a grand finale of flying parts. It was finally over, or so I thought. We spent the rest of the night and most of the early morning cleaning up the area.
When it was all said and done, I was extremely physically and mentally fatigued. In all, four people were injured, including the pilot, and one person lost his life. We, the fire department, were very fortunate no one was injured. The adrenaline rush the rescue gave me was massive, although I would have gladly traded that rush for the safety of everyone and especially for the man who would never be going home again. My job is one big irony. I absolutely love the rush my job gives me. Inevitably, someone has to be injured or in danger of injury for firefighters to ply their trade, and if we don’t do our job correctly, someone may die. If this disaster did anything, it drove home the reality of what my job is for. It also brought to light what can happen to people in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. I truly pray I never have the opportunity to get another rush like the one I experienced that day. That will mean someone is not hurting.
Vincent W. Myers