Rural Osprey training accident had no air ambulance at the ready

Photo: Christi Wetzel

Where was the air medical evacuation, or medevac, following last weekend’s deadly Osprey military aircraft crash in Waimanalo?

It’s a question being asked after reports of victims being rushed to hospitals in the back of a pickup truck and even TheHandi-Van.

Always Investigating took that question to all of the military branches involved in the incident. In doing so, we uncovered more details on what happened before and after Sunday’s training exercise, and what precautions were taken before the training had even started.

Always Investigating found the military planned for safety, but perhaps did not plan for the worst.

The crash killed 24-year-old Lance Cpl. Joshua E. Barron of Washington and 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Matthew J. Determan of Arizona.

The Marines in Hawaii and the visiting unit out of California outlined in advance the kind of safety response they’d have ready if an incident happened in Waimanalo. But an examination of the time between the crash and critical care shows more may need to be done in the future.

Always Investigating compiled official military, emergency services, radio dispatch, hospital and witness accounts, and reporter logs of Sunday’s events to detail what happened that tragic day at Bellows on Sunday, May 1.

11:00 a.m. An MV-22 Osprey with 22 aboard makes a hard landing at Bellows. Dust, smoke and fire signal something went very, very wrong.

Minutes later, military on the ground and nearby civilians scaling the barbed wire fence between the beach and wreckage head straight into the danger zone to help. One Marine, Barron, died at the scene. A pickup truck with two injured Marines and a good Samaritan aboard departs for Castle Medical Center, a 10-mile drive, but the closest emergency room.

11:29 a.m. Military on the scene call for fire and EMS backup, as do four other bystanders who dial 9-1-1 about the downed aircraft.

11:30 a.m. EMS radios out a dispatch, emergency vehicles start to swarm the area 11 minutes later.

transporting crash victims map

About a half-hour later, ambulances begin to fan out:

12:13 p.m. An ambulance departs the scene to Queen’s Medical Center which is the island’s highest-level trauma care hospital, 13 miles away. That first ambulance carries two in serious condition and arrives at Queen’s at 12:39 p.m.

12:40 p.m. EMS heads to Castle arriving at 12:56 p.m. with three serious patients aboard.

12:59 p.m. EMS takes off for Tripler Army Medical Center with two stable patients, arriving 1:35 p.m. The Federal Fire Department transports four others.

Meanwhile, Castle, which had taken in five patients, reroutes one, Determan, a pickup truck patient, to higher-level care via AMR private ambulance. He died days later.

1:04 p.m. EMS aboard a city Handi-Van carrying eight Marines in stable condition arrives at Tripler.

“That’s pretty bad to be that far from a hospital that can take care of seriously injured people,” said former test pilot and aircraft designer Pierre Sprey. “If you’re going to have major exercises where you think you might have a problem either with the ground part of the maneuver or the air part of the maneuver, it makes sense to have a medevac on standby.”

City EMS has not had air evacuation resources to call on for about a decade, when Schofield Barracks and the Hawaii National Guard helicopters got prioritized to wartime functions instead. Military sources say they’ve had Navy helicopters and medics on standby as a medevac backup for other Marines exercises in Hawaii.

“Standby medevac support may be arranged for training conducted in very remote areas based on risk assessments,” Agnes Tauyan, director of public affairs for Navy Region Hawaii, told KHON2. “But is not common here on Oahu.”

KHON2 dug into the procedures and planning that came before the training flights even started Sunday.

“Safety requirements, to include MEDEVAC plans and responses, are the responsibility of the Range Control office that runs the training site, in this case Marine Corps Training Area, Bellows, Marine Corps Base Hawaii,” explained Capt. Brian Block, spokesman for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, in from California for the USS Essex exercises with the Ospreys.

“The Marine Corps Base Hawaii does not possess medevac capabilities,” said Elizabeth Feeney from the Public Affairs Office of the Kaneohe base. “We rely on the expertise of first responders, to include Military first responders, Honolulu Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services. The care plan, as coordinated through the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Marine Corps Base Hawaii, planned for ground medevac to the closest medical care facility, which in this case was Castle Medical Center… That plan was implemented. It’s important to clarify that the medical response procedures were examined prior to training, and ground transport was determined to be the quickest and most effective medical response option.”

The Navy told Always Investigating, “In the case of this recent training event, a standby medevac was not requested.”

“As a user of the range, we provided the required organic safety personnel (a range safety officer at training area) and an overall officer-in-charge, safety vehicle, and a corpsman for all of the training occurring that day,” Block said of the resources contributed by the 15th MEU.
That unit, and the Marine Corps Base Hawaii, outlined all of that in advance in their safety plan, but there is not a standard operating procedure requiring air backup.

“You evaluate each situation uniquely,” explained Rich Martindell, an aviation and safety consultant based in San Diego. “You take a look at it, you assess whether the threat is high or low. An offsite landing for an Osprey is a pretty normal operation.”

But it’s an operation Sprey says carries great risk.

“It’s one thing if they’re just flying V-22s with just a pilot and a copilot,” Sprey said. “But when they’ve got it filled up with 22 Marines, that’s another thing and especially if they’re going to be doing landing exercises.”

That’s because a common Osprey landing problem called “wing vortex state” causes a loss of control of one of the wings. Sprey says there’s nothing that can be done about it and it’s a deadly problem that has killed dozens of other Marines in training.

KHON2 asked both aviation experts what should be done in the future in these kinds of exercises at that location?

“I think they would certainly take a look at air support,” Martindell said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not you’ve got a helicopter available or another Osprey available. It depends upon the (size of the hospital) helipad, but in most cases it doesn’t take anything much larger than a helipad to land an Osprey on.”

“If you’re trying to exercise the way you would in combat, you’d better have a medevac helicopter on hand,” Sprey said. “And you definitely want to do it way away from where people have houses, because once that thing starts burning, you have really toxic smoke coming off the composite. The airplane is 30 percent composite. When that stuff burns it creates a lung-corrosive poison that’ll blow for miles.”

The California and Kaneohe Marines and the Navy praised selfless actions of all responders, military, first-responder and civilian. It remains to be seen if next time around those responders will include air backup.

“As we do after any event, we’ll review our procedures during our after action review and consult with EMS if necessary,” Feeney from MCBH said.

“Medevac avoids the whole problem of the distance to the trauma center,” Sprey said. “You certainly don’t want to move the training closer to the urban areas.”

“The response to Sunday’s mishap is both a testament to the professionalism and skill of the EMS and range personnel involved, and a truly heartwarming display of heroism on the part of civilian bystanders who chose to risk their own safety to care for our Marines,” 15th MEU’s Block said. “Words cannot adequately express our gratitude to all of them.”

“There was immediate and overwhelming support from the community, Honolulu Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services, Bellows Air Force Station, Federal Fire Department, and the MCBH Aircraft Rescue Firefighting,” MCBH’s Feeney said. “For that they will have our eternal gratitude. The heroic actions of everyone that responded, without regard to their own safety, is a testament to the bonds we have with our community, and we can’t thank them enough for rendering immediate aid.”

“During the tragic accident on May 17, civilian and military responders accessed the downed aircraft as quickly as possible,” the Navy’s Tauyan said. “We’re thankful for all who rendered aid to our Marines, including civilian bystanders.”

“Honolulu EMS responded with more than two dozen personnel. This was a mass casualty situation where crews determined the number of patients, extent of injuries and appropriate transport and hospital,” said Honolulu EMS spokesperson Shayne Enright. “EMS is very grateful to the other agencies who co-responded to this incident.”

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