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Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The “Heliport” at Tulane

John Holland, LifeNet, as told to James T. McKenna

Holland is aviation director for the southeast region for LifeNet Air Medical Services, a division of Air Methods Corp. With other LifeNet crews, he flew three aircraft from Alabama, Florida and Georgia to New Orleans to aid in rescue and recovery operations. A retired U.S. Army aviator who flew OH-13s and Apaches, he is a religious man. When he arrived in New Orleans, it was apparent to him that he had been brought there for reasons other than to fly medevac missions. He spent 60 hr. on the impromptu "heliport" at Tulane University Hospital, overseeing the airlift of that hospital's patients and personnel.

We got a call to move aircraft and crews down to New Orleans. We shut our bases in Huntsville (Ala.), Atlanta and Tallahassee (Fla.), and within 4 hr. we had aircraft in the air. We landed in our three machines as a unit on the roof of the garage at Tulane. I got out and said, "Who's in charge?"

No one was in charge.

I said, "Take me to the command center of the hospital." A nurse led the way. We had to walk through two decks of the parking garage to an enclosed bridge that crossed over into the main building. There were no lights. Tulane had no power. "Stay real close," the nurse said. "We only have one flashlight."

Going over the bridge, we had to work our way through all the people. It was packed with patients and with people who had come in with injuries from the storm. Some had soiled themselves. You could smell some of the wounds. In the darkness there, I thought, "Lord, you sent me here for a reason."

The nurse brought me to a small room. It was maybe 14X14 ft. One lamp was working in the room; it was battery powered. There was one pad by it. The room was filled with Tulane's administrators. I said, "What do you need?"

The CEO of the hospital [Jim Montgomery] said, "We need someone to get the helicopters working, because we don't know how to do that. The civilian helicopters coming could not do this. We could not do this. Can you help us?" So that's how I became the air boss at the Tulane heliport.

The hospital didn't have a heliport. They had cut down the lightposts on the top deck of the parking lot and made that the heliport. Nobody at the hospital knew anything about directing helicopters. They didn't know hand signals. So we took some people from the staff and gave them a safety briefing. We went over basic hand signals. Then we started moving patients.

And there were a lot of patients. I'd been told when we landed that there were 150 patients that had to be evacuated to the military triage hospital at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. While I was downstairs, that had grown to 200. That graduated to 300 critical patients and 1,000 people, not counting the medical staff.

There were so many helicopters landing and taking off that you couldn't talk. You couldn't hear anything above the rotors, especially when a Black Hawk or Chinook came in, and we had no communications.

So we came up with a system of hand signals. The medical staff would wait at the door to the stairwell with patients lined up down the stairs. Then we would signal, "This is how many I need--20," then flash the signal [with all the fingers of both hands twice]. Then they'd bring 20 people up to the aircraft. Once we got into a pattern, it worked real well.

As night approached, we moved cars up from the lower levels of the garage to light the deck. When they were ready, the aircraft coming in would flash their landing light three times as a signal for the cars to turn their lights off.

After a while, we got a satellite phone up there, so we could talk to the National Guard folks running air operations from the heliport at the Superdome and anyone else we could get a hold of. I told them, "We'll take anything you can get. If it's going by, send it down and we'll send someone out on it."

We ran out of water and food. The helicopters to the outbound hospital would bring back food and water.

There were some light moments. I had a rule: No running on the deck. At one point, there were two people waiting by the stairwell, carrying a patient who had no legs in a chair.

When I signaled for people to load, they started running toward the helicopter. I held my hands up and yelled, "Stop! Walk!" They both nodded at me. I did it again: "Stop! Walk!" They nodded again. I headed toward them and when I was close enough that they could hear me, I said, "Stop! Walk!" They looked at me and said, "He can't walk."

Things improved when the bigger aircraft started coming in. A Firehawk landed and it turned out I knew the pilot from 25 years ago. We had flown together in the Army. We put 18 people on that Firehawk.

When the first Chinook came in, I couldn't count how many we put on board. We just kept sending people where they had to go.

Finally, we got the last patient out, and that was quite a feeling, I can tell you. Then the hospital staff said, `We found another one,' another patient. I thought, "Lord, just send me one more helicopter." And just then a Coast Guard came around the corner of the building and landed to take the last bag-ventilated patient. It was about 1:45 a.m.--As told to James T. McKenna

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