LifeFlight crew reflects on busiest day of rescues in its history

LifeFlight crew reflects on busiest day of rescues in its history

14-Nov-2023 Source: LifeFlight Australia

Tuesday, November 14 is a year since the one-in-5000-year flood almost wiped the small New South Wales town of Eugowra off the map.

Two residents died and others who hadn’t seen flood water on their property in decades almost drowned in their backyards.

Flying the dedicated emergency response Special Mission helicopter, deployed by New South Wales SES, the LifeFlight crew started their shift at the head of the river, in darkness.

Using the aircraft’s Trakka A800 Searchlight and Night Vision Goggles they located and winched three people trapped in a flooded gorge.

The LifeFlight team flew on and the state-of-the-art aircraft was the first to appear over the devastated town.

“We just saw the town of Eugowra and it was absolutely devastated…and every roof had somebody on it waiting to be rescued,” said LifeFlight Rescue Crew Officer Aaron Hartle.

“Most of it was rushing water, it was brown, it was full of mud, there was so much debris – water tanks, vehicles, hay bales, animals just floating downstream.”

“We were the first helicopter in the town to start rescuing people and it wasn’t long before there were five other helicopters also rescuing people.”

While the LifeFlight Special Mission helicopter can be quickly fitted with some of the most advanced search and rescue technology available, for the Eugowra missions, the aircraft was configured to create maximum space to allow for multiple people to be airlifted.

In their 10-hour shift, the LifeFlight rescue crew saved 18 people and 13 pets, including dogs, cats, and a turtle.

Residents had no time to flee.

Most retreated to their roofs but some like Kim Storey, and Brian and Lesley Smith and their two dogs Max and Buddy, were trapped inside their homes.

Aaron Hartle said when the LifeFlight crew spotted Kim Storey frantically waving up at them her house was visibly shaking.

“Kim’s house was right in the middle of the river, and it was a flowing torrent of water, and we were under the impression that it wouldn’t be long before her house was floating away so we felt it quite necessary to rescue her fairly urgently,” he said.

Aaron was winched down into the raging waters.

Kim had been contemplating jumping into the floodwaters because she thought her house was going to come off its stumps and she didn’t know if anyone was coming to save her.

When she heard the helicopter then saw Aaron inside her home, she knew she was going to be okay.

“I was so happy to see him,” Kim said. “He was so calming. He put a harness on me, and I followed him out the back stairs through the chest-high water.”

“We have done training in the past to calm people and reassure people, but I think it’s just the presence of someone rescuing her and saying: “Hey, I’m Aaron, I’m here to rescue you”…I think that’s got a calming nature because she could probably see no way out of her situation,” Aaron said.

Nine kilometres away, Lesley and Brian Smith’s house flooded in moments. They lost everything except the ashes of Lesley’s parents which she quickly stashed in the top of a wardrobe.

“Within 10 minutes, we were waist-deep in water,” Lesley said. “When LifeFlight rescued us from our back door, it was up to our necks, and as we flew away, the water had reached the top of the washing line.”

“The water just came down from the mountains, and the creek was so full it came across the paddocks, and it was an inland tsunami. It was an incredibly strong rush of water.”

The crew was going from house to house looking for people in danger and saw the Smiths were standing in their backyard in waist-deep water with their two dogs.

“We first rescued Lesley and one of the dogs in the rescue basket and we decided to rescue Brian and Buddy and when I got down to Brian the water was up to his neck. The water was rising so fast, that I have got Buddy into the animal rescue capsule and used a strop to rescue Brian back up to the helicopter,” said Aaron.

Buddy was the first animal to be saved using the LifeFlight Animal Rescue Capsule (ARC) – a one-of-a-kind, Australian-first design now available at LifeFlight helicopter bases.

LifeFlight Aircraft Safety Engineer Simeon Jamieson worked with Aaron and other crew members after the Eugowra floods to further improve the ARC.

“It’s something that we are very proud of here at LifeFlight,” Simon said.

“Originally we were going to call it a dog rescue capsule but after the Eugowra floods using it to rescue some cats, dogs and a turtle as well we changed it to the Animal Rescue Capsule, I guess the acronym worked better so it’s a little Noah’s ARC for rescuing animals in floods.”

The innovative design is collapsible and easy to store. Improvements include a padded base and sides, extra drainage holes and a mesh top so the animal can look straight into the eyes of the rescuer.

For Aaron safely performing a large number of rescue missions in such a short time is something he will never forget.

“People will always want to take their pets with them. Being able to rescue so many people and their pets for me is one of the best days in aviation I think I’ve ever had.”

“I’m just so proud to work with LifeFlight and the innovative company that we are to be able to come up with new tools to do our job to be able to rescue animals – man’s best friend, it’s an absolute privilege.”

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