On March 22, 2014 an unstable hill collapsed just east of Oso, Wash., setting off what has been called the deadliest landslide in U.S. history. By chance, the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team (HRT) was conducting a training exercise just 25 miles south at the time.
This proximity enabled the mostly volunteer team to dispatch and reach the site within about an hour of the landslide. Their “SnoHawk 10” Bell UH-1H was the first to arrive, about 45 minutes ahead of a U.S. Navy helicopter from NAS Whidbey Island.
Over the next several hours, the two helicopters pulled about 14 people from the dirt, silt and sand that blanketed the ground below. The rescue team continued to support efforts at Oso in the ensuing days.
The landslide covered about a square mile, swallowing a small, rural group of homes, and more than 40 people lost their lives as a result. All but one of the people pulled out by the two helicopters the day of the landslide survived.
For the Snohomish County HRT, the Oso rescue was only one of about 80 calls it gets on average every year. The team’s rescues run the gamut, including missing children, lost Alzheimer’s patients, missing hikers and rafters, people trapped by floods and injured climbers and skiers. The rescues occur both in and out of the county, from urban areas to the most remote regions of the Cascade Mountains.
The team’s efforts were honored as part of HAI’s 2015 Salute to Excellence awards, presented annually to individuals and organizations that “exemplify the best of the helicopter industry.” The team was selected as this year’s winner of the Airbus Helicopters Golden Hour Award, which recognizes “an individual, group, or organization that, through a particular activity or contributions over time, has advanced the use of helicopters in the vital mission of air medical transport.” The award was presented during HAI’s Salute to Excellence celebration yesterday evening.
“Lost or injured hikers and climbers in Washington State’s rugged Cascade Mountains have no better friends than the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team,” HAI said in announcing the award.
The team is part of the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue program, staffed by a small core of deputies but primarily comprising more than two dozen volunteers, including pilots, flight medics, crew chiefs and rescue volunteers. They pay for their own equipment and specialized training. The team notes the dedication of the volunteers, saying they uphold the motto, “so that others may live.” The team does not charge for its rescues, relying on a tight budget supported by public funds and donations.
In addition to the SnoHawk 10, the team operates SnoHawk 1, a Hughes 500-P (a modified OH-6A) primarily used for law enforcement, search and command-and-control missions.
In a year-end post, the team said of 2014: “It has been a year of hard work, from the Oso disaster to lost people to brush fires to collapsed bridges to hurt climbers and hikers. We have been at the ready and responded to the best of our abilities.”