Helicopters play crucial role in bus crash response

The Vancouver Sun
September 03, 2014
By The Vancouver Sun
Sept. 3, 2014, Vancouver - For three hours, Sue Gordon watched as a massive rescue operation unfolded after a tour bus carrying 56 people flipped on the Coquihalla Highway Thursday afternoon. As she was getting ready to continue her trip home to Tsawwassen, she bent down to pull off a bloody piece of paper that had blown against her leg.

Flipping it over, she could see it was an ambulance dispatch order. It read 3:05 p.m.

Before her lay the horrifying evidence of a crash that pulled that one ambulance, along with many more, from all over lower British Columbia to help with one of the biggest mass-casualty accidents in recent history.

Against the backdrop of a broken and blood-spattered tour bus, bloody papers, clothes and glass from blown-out windows littered the ground. Above Gordon, air ambulance helicopters clattered in to pick up the injured. They left just as rapidly, headed for Kamloops, Kelowna and New Westminster. The northbound lanes of the highway served as a makeshift helicopter landing zone, while the southbound side around the bus was a virtual parking lot of ambulances and fire trucks.

Volunteer doctors worked with paramedics and local firefighters, triaging the worst injured first and making sure even the walking wounded — and there were many of them — each had a companion or volunteer to sit with them as they waited for help.

All of the passengers and the driver aboard the Vancouver-bound tour bus that rolled on its side 30 kilometres south of Merritt were injured. Some suffered only minor bumps and bruises, but seven were critically injured and another six suffered serious injuries.

The accident triggered an astonishing rescue effort throughout southern B.C. No less than six hospitals treated the injured, three of them halted other services to declare a Code Orange, a “stop what you are doing” message that pauses everything while the hospitals consider how to handle the impending crisis.

Nineteen ambulances from nine communities, as far away as Agassiz and Barriere, flooded into the area. Six air ambulance helicopters — with a seventh on its way before being called off — landed on the hastily closed high mountain highway in order to ferry the worst wounded to waiting emergency rooms.

Helicopters came from B.C. Emergency Health Services bases in Kamloops, Penticton and Metro Vancouver, but also as far away as Qualicum Beach. From Kamloops and Kelowna came surplus ambulances loaded with extra body boards, stretchers and medical equipment, a kind of mobile crash cart meant specifically for mass casualty incidents.

Fire departments in Merritt, Kamloops and the Lower Nicola Indian Band sent people and equipment, helping paramedics extricate tourists too injured to safely leave the bus.

Even a local church in Merritt pitched in, armed with platters of sandwiches and urns of hot coffee to restore the flagging energy of the rescuers.

Janice Wong, 19, an American from Los Angeles, was napping on the bus as it was heading back to Vancouver from a sightseeing trip to the Rocky Mountains. On the bus with her and her parents were tourists from Canada, Hong Kong, China and the U.S. All were Asian, most spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese.

A dashboard camera on a truck following the bus caught the accident. The bus, which was not speeding, drifted left on to the median, and the driver yanked the wheel back to the right. The bus wobbled across the road, flipped on its side and slid down a slight embankment, flipping back upright as the centre of gravity dropped.

Wong woke as her body was jarred and she was ejected out a window onto a pile of other injured passengers. As people around her moaned and screamed, Wong feared her parents were dead.

“I couldn’t see — I was panicking at the same time,” Wong said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what the hell just happened. Where’s my parents? Holy crap. Are they dead?’ It was just blood everywhere.”

Wong’s mother lay nearby, seriously injured, her father less so.

As the dazed and injured passengers tried to make sense of what had happened, passersby screeched to a halt and ran to help. Several doctors and nurses, including two emergency room doctors who were travelling together, immediately began treating the most seriously hurt.

By the time Wong and her father were taken to Nicola Valley Hospital in Merritt, air ambulances had flown the most seriously injured, including her mother, to Kelowna or Kamloops.

How the rescue came together on that desolate spot of highway between Comstock Road and Coldwater Road can be attributed to a lot of plans marked “what if” that hospitals, the ambulance service and other responders keep close at hand.

The first indication of trouble came at 2:36 p.m. when the B.C. Ambulance dispatch office in Kamloops received a call that there were many injured in a bus crash near Merritt. The dispatchers immediately tasked both of Merritt’s ambulances, also pressing into service a spare that, uncharacteristically, they had on hand.

Paul Swain, the area director for B.C. Emergency Health Services’ ambulance service, said within minutes they realized they were going to have to call in more help, and they started calling frantically to find help wherever they could. First the ambulance in Logan Lake. Then others from everywhere they could find them. As ambulances were pulled to the crash, dispatchers backfilled, calling ambulances from even further to cover those areas so no community would be left with without emergency service. Kamloops supplied the crash, Chase supplied Kamloops, Armstrong looked after Chase. On and on it went as B.C. Emergency Health Services stretched its emergency response net over the province.

Gordon remembers how fast the RCMP cruiser and an ambulance blew by her as she was making her way south on the highway, heading for her home in Tsawwassen.

Just a few minutes ahead, traffic was paralyzed. She got out of her car and could see the wreck of the bus. Within minutes ambulances began arriving, along with firefighters, a highway maintenance truck and even a jumbo tow truck.

Four minutes after the first ambulance call came, the Nicola Valley Hospital — an eight-bed, six-stretcher facility — was put on Code Orange.

Bernadine Easson, the administrator, didn’t know what to expect, but as a rural hospital alongside one of the province’s busiest highways, it has seen its fair share of motor vehicle accident victims. This, however, was well beyond Merritt’s capabilities.

At 3:15 p.m. Nancy Serwo, the interim administrator at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops got a call warning to expect mass casualties. Five minutes later a similar call went to Sharon Cook, her counterpart at Kelowna General. They both sprang into action, contacting their emergency room staff and alerting every department they needed, from laboratories and pharmacies to diagnostic services and nursing — everything critical to handling mass casualties — to be ready for the worst.

The Kamloops hospital declared a Level 1 Code Orange at 3:25 p.m. Kelowna followed almost immediately. Extra doctors and nurses were called in, and operating rooms put on notice. Emergency room beds were emptied, and medical supplies restocked. People who could be sent home were, and those who had to be admitted were quickly shuttled upstairs.

Miraculously, not one of the scheduled surgeries at either hospital was cancelled. But Kelowna put six of its operating rooms on standby; Kamloops two. The first injured arrived in Kamloops by air at 4:30 p.m. with Kelowna getting a casualty-laden helicopter at 5:35.

On the highway, ambulance service supervisors set up an incident command centre. Working with the hospitals, they shipped in patients, being careful not to overload their capabilities. Whenever they could, they directed the less-seriously injured west, to Hope’s tiny Fraser Canyon Hospital and even as far as Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster. Nicola hospital took in 11 people, all of them walking wounded.

With most of the tourists only speaking Chinese dialects, Kamloops staff called in immigration services interpreters, and in Kelowna, Cook found staff who could translate. Even in Merritt people came to aid.

By 9:30 p.m. the worst was over, even though the surgeons in Kelowna and Kamloops were still hard at work. Kamloops cancelled its Code Orange at 8:25 p.m., Kelowna an hour later.

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