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Helicopters play crucial role in bus crash response

September 3, 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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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