Friday, December 2, 2011

Chopper Down

If you can't find me, start looking here:  Lawar Beach
Sunday is my alleged day of rest and this was  a perfect Sunday at Lawar Beach in Western Sumbawa, Indonesia.  Lawar Beach is a small, secluded beach tucked away deep in a cove 15 minutes from my Jungle Clinic. Postcards were made for beaches like Lawar.  The water is sparkling turquoise and the reef starts three meters into the ocean.  Ten meters further is pristine snorkeling through a twisting labyrinth of beige natural coral canals.  The sand is creamy white and there's not a soul around for a few kilometers.  I had spent the morning watching the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals among a rabid group of Rugby enthusiasts.  It was a crowd of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans.  As most Americans are, I was clueless how the game was played.  Still I pretended I knew what was going on and cheered when both sides scored (I had no dog in this fight).  Afterwards a small barbecue was arranged at Lawar Beach.   It was two PM and I had just cracked open my first Bintang beer when the phone rang.  It was the mining operations manager.

"Doc, where are you?  The chopper went down."
"What? Are you serious? Can you say that again?"
"The chopper went down in the jungle.  That's all we know right now. You better come in."
"Shit. Okay, I'm on the way."

I heard him the first time. Like most people who can't believe what they hear, I had to hear it again.

Bell 412
I know that chopper.  It is a Bell 412 utility helicopter.  A fifty-six foot long, quadruple rotor bladed,  high takeoff weight, variable seating  beast of a helicopter.  It was big enough to carry ten people and over two tons of cargo. The Bell 412 was being used daily to shuttle people and supplies out to the mining project deep in the West Sumbawa jungle. It was also the same helicopter I used to get  my family and our few worldly possessions from the airport to the town where we now live.

I grabbed my things off the beach and headed to my car. From the smell of it, I was missing an amazing Sunday barbecue.  Barbecue genes run deep in Aussies, New Zealanders and South African DNA.  I hadn't eaten since breakfast.  I was starving.

I headed out on the beach access road in my old, hospital issue Toyota SUV.  The Lawar Beach road was cut through the jungle and was barely wide enough  to keep the side-view mirrors from scraping against the brush, vines and trees. The path was  was relatively flat, but full of random pot holes, gravel and dips that made the Toyota bottom out each time with a loud thunk.  If this were the raining season the holes would have been twice this size and I would have been screwed. Next year I'm going to ask for a truck.  I called our paramedics back at the Jungle Clinic to see if they'd heard anything.  There was no more information.  The chopper was down in the jungle and two people were known to be onboard.  Soon I made the turn onto the paved jungle road. This road had more organized and predictable potholes.  When I reached the main gate there was a security check point.  A group of company guards in red uniforms and armed Indonesian soldiers stood in front of the gate.  There was recently a violent demonstration outside the gate and the guards and soldiers were a little bit twitchy.  I stopped and politely let the guards know that there was an emergency.   They lifted the iron gate and let me past without the usual security check.

When I got to the hospital our paramedics were checking and rechecking the blue backpacks full of medicines, splints, wraps and emergency supplies.  The entire staff had been called in this Sunday and were in remarkably better spirits about it than I was.  Still no further information. The company's second helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350 "Squirrel",  had been scrambled and was on the way for the search and rescue.   I watched it land in the soccer field across the clinic when I pulled in.  I ran over with the paramedics and spoke to the pilot.

If you are seeing this view, you might be on
a stretcher in my helicopter
According to the pilot, the Bell 412 had lifted off from an exploration camp an hour ago after dropping off cargo. Three minutes later, while over the jungle, a single may-day distress call was heard.  After that, nothing.  As the pilot and I spoke the Indonesian rescue and safety people gathered around.  I sensed they were looking at me just a little apprehensively and whispering to each other.  At first I just chalked it up to foreign paranoia.  Ultimately I realized that while everyone was suited up for a proper industrial rescue--uniform, hardhat, steel-toe boots--there I stood in a pair of Blue Oneill surf shorts, a Byron Beach tank-top and sandy brown flip flops. I looked like an Australian surfie who'd wandered into the wrong place (I did have my company DR. ERIK identification badge hanging  around my neck. Ultimately I decided to put on a green tee shirt to cover my tattoos and give me a marginally more official appearance).  Though we had very little time to spare, I quickly explained that I was the town doctor.  I got a synchronized nod of the heads, but the same 'strange foreigner" look I knew too well.  

The two young paramedics packed the rescue equipment into the storage space in the back of the Squirrel. The blades were turning and I had to shout to hear my own voice as I prepped them on what they needed to do. They both had a look somewhere between ambition, fear and bewilderment as they climbed into the chopper.   Neither was over twenty-four years old. I then made a quick executive decision and pulled the younger of the two paramedics off the helicopter. I took his place in the front seat of the Squirrel.  IF we were able to find the Bell 412 in the jungle and IF we were able to get to it, it was not going to be pretty.  There could be some tough decisions to be made and some harsh visuals to face.  I felt like I was the best guy here to deal with them.  There's not usually many survivors after a helicopter crash and these guys had never seen a dead body. This shouldn't be the first time they do.

Unfortunately, in nearly thirty years of doctoring I've seen more dead bodies than I can remember.  But I'll never forgot the first one I saw:   I was twenty-four years old, but at the time it seemed so much older than these kids who work for me today.  It was three AM and I was a medical student in a hospital in Philadelphia that has long since been knocked down and forgotten.  There was a 30 year old woman in the ICU that 5 doctors and nurses were frantically trying to resuscitate.  By the time I got there it was just at the end of the Code Blue call. I was asked to puncture her femoral artery to see if she still had any oxygen in her blood.  Her skin was cold, clammy and un-alive. She was a Hispanic woman, unnaturally pale and I remember that she had a long braided ponytail hanging off the bed.  I don't know why she was in the ICU or what had killed her, but it was as definitive a moment as any I've ever experienced.  It changed me and I still see it in my mind like it was yesterday.  I suppose a glimpse of death and pain it is a rite of medical passage for any young paramedic  working in this remote and hazardous place.  But for some reason, like an overprotective father, I badly wanted to spare them this visual today.

The trusted Squirrel
The pilot gave the twirling finger lift-off sign and said, "Gotta go, gotta go!"   The Squirrel whirred and  heaved  into the sky.  I watched the soccer field get further away from the oval glass window beneath my feet.  I secured the tight Y-shaped seat harness and pulled the thick, heavy earphones on.  They squeezed my head like a vise.  The pilot said that the Bell 412 had an emergency beacon that was still active and was being tracked by the Indonesian Aviation Authorities.  It  pinpointed the downed chopper to a five kilometer square of jungle sixty kilometers Southeast of the Jungle Clinic. We had three hours of daylight left to search. The Squirrel had no night flight capabilities and had to be on the ground by sundown. Nobody wanted to lose two choppers in one day, especially those of us on-board.

About five minutes into the flight we reached the beautiful Sumbawa coastline.  It was a mix of white sand, rocky cliffs and long rolling ocean waves that has made the most hardcore surfers drool uncontrollably.  On any other day this would have been a dream flight of a privileged few.  Then something came to mind.  Three months ago, while I was still living in Thailand, a Bell 212 helicopter crashed near the Myanmar border for no apparent reason.  Three days later, a second chopper crashed while going to retrieve the bodies from the first crash.  The cause: no apparent reason.  One week later, a third chopper-another Bell 212-went down while going after the wreckage of the first two.  Then, out of nowhere, a panic attack.

Nice view, but a bad place for a panic attack
The seat harness suddenly got tighter and tighter.  The air in the Squirrel became hot, heavy and thick.  My heart was beating so loudly I could hear it.  I guessed that this must be the same sensation you get if you are unlucky enough to be buried alive.  We were flying over dense, endless jungle, still another twenty-five minutes to the crash area.  There was nowhere to land the chopper even if we had to.  It felt like nothing was going to stop this panic unless I could get out of the goddamn Squirrel as soon as possible.  Twenty-five more minutes of this sensation felt like it would end me, but I said nothing.  We had more important things to do and we still didn't know if there were survivors.  I stared out at the ocean, took some deep breaths and in about three long and horrifically uncomfortable minutes, I talked myself down.  It's a terrible realization when you find out that you have fear inside you bad enough to stop you in your tracks.  Especially at the absolute worst of times.

When I was finally back in my own skin, I talked to the pilot about our options for getting to the chopper if we found it.  The Squirrel had no mechanical winch so if we needed to get through the jungle top it was going to be down and up by rope-not the greatest of options. We would have to be lowered through the ceiling of the trees to the jungle floor below.  It was at this point when I realized I was still in my shorts, tee shirt and sandals--hardly standard jungle protective gear.  I was however, still wearing my badge and was wearing SPF 50 sunscreen from the beach.  I nonchalantly scanned the feet of the other rescue workers for compatible sized boots to purloin if it came to it.  Jumping quickly into the rescue chopper still felt like the right thing to do at short notice, but in retrospect was not a greatly thought out plan.  There was no time for that.

A beautiful view unless you are trying to
find something here.
We were working with a small seaplane aircraft that was flying in circles over the same area and had onboard equipment to hear the downed beacon signal.  It was scanning the area above us to find the strongest signal and then pointing us blindly and futilely in the direction.  Unfortunately, beacon chasing is not an exact science. It narrowed the search from looking for a needle in a thousand haystacks to looking for a needle in about a hundred.  We looked for signs of slashed, exposed tree tops, but there were none.  We followed a few smoke paths, but they turned out to be small fires set by villagers burning off land. It was an endless topographic line of trees, branches, vines and clouds. While flying close to the tree tops we also had to keep an eye on the circling seaplane to make sure our random, frantic flight paths did not collide.  The moments were surreal.  It was the purest expression of a frantic and dangerous head-first search into an unknown situation.  I was used to a similar feeling in the Clinic, but we have control over our environment even when we have no idea what bloody, infected accident is going to come through front door at any time.  We have rules and we have protocols that tell us what to do and how to react.  There was none of that this Sunday.  I was several hundred hundred feet into the Sumbawa sky strapped into the front seat of a small aircraft in my beachwear, badge and flip flops.  Nothing I'd ever done in my training had prepared me for this trip  I felt  as excited, exposed and as terrified as I'd ever been.  But more than that, I felt terrible for the guys who'd gone down on what was just another Sunday shift at work. Certain risks come with certain jobs.  I was proof of that right now. 

I'd brought my Iphone with me to maintain contact with the clinic and with rescue management.  I used it to photograph the  areas we suspected might be close to the crash site including the few, small recognizable landmarks that could be identified in this sea of trees below us.  We stopped, refueled quickly and made one last sweep stretching the daylight as long as possible before we were forced to put down at sunset.  We'd have to start again tomorrow at first light.  I was exasperated, sweaty and disappointed.   I walked back to the clinic and noticed I still had sand on my legs from Lawar Beach.  The beach seemed like four days ago, not four hours. I wanted to go home, put some food in my belly, have a beer and let the rest of the night pass freely from a solid position on my couch.  That wasn't going to happen.  I got a call to come immediately to the management office for a debriefing of our search.

Smoke, but no chopper
I walked across the road to the management office and stepped into a make-shift war-room with twenty people sitting around a huge conference table.  They were managing the helicopter crash on the cultural, governmental, family and business aspects of this tragedy.  These were upper management guys dressed in matching  clean, fresh  company uniforms.  I stood in the front of the room in my shorts, sweaty tee shirt and sandy flip-flops (and official company badge) trying to muster up as much professionalism as  this awkward moment would allow.  These guys were seasoned pro's and took the loss of a life personally.  I was impressed at the level of concern and action, as though each of them had lost a family member.  They listened to my report and dissected the information carefully even if i did look like a smelly, feral Aussie surf-rat.  They know how it works out here in the middle of the jungle:  get the work done first and clean up later when the job is done.  After all,I wasn't hired for my boyish good looks.

A giant satellite Google map was up on a large screen in the front of the war-room.  I showed them the area we'd searched for the last 3 hours and used the photos from my Iphone to narrow the possible search region.   The plan was for the Squirrel to put down at first light in a clearing as close as possible to the likely crash area .  The rescue workers would go in by foot. I would not be going with them.  I had normal clinic duties the next day and in reality this was no longer a rescue mission.  It was a retrieval.  Our young paramedics would join the rescue team tomorrow.  Despite my best efforts, they would not be spared a horrific first view of a dead body. 

I  tried.

I dislike helicopters. Does it show?


  1. Unfortunately mate, if you don't want people to see a body, you're in the wrong game - both medicine and mining. From memory I saw my first body on Sumbawa. Things like that stick with you. Shane

  2. Another episo of M.A.S.H.but in a different time.

  3. Horrific--- saving lives and treating the ill are always a challenge, esp. in those conditions. My 25 plus yrs in nursing has shown me many conditions:saddness and joy. Many blessings to you AND all that give of themselves. I pray for PEACE and justice everyday

  4. You have me hanging.... I think I'll just leave it at that.

  5. Reservist is very proud of you

  6. OK, Erik, I didn't expect a happily-ever-after conclusion, but I did want SOME conclusion. You're an expert tease!