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Helicopter pilots explain why 74-year-old’s stretcher spun wildly in rescue video

Phoenix, Arizona, firefighter pilot Paul Apolinar explains why a stretcher carrying a 74-year-old injured hiker started spinning uncontrollably during a Piestewa Peak rescue in the mountains. Video of the dizzying incident went viral.
Phoenix, Arizona, firefighter pilot Paul Apolinar explains why a stretcher carrying a 74-year-old injured hiker started spinning uncontrollably during a Piestewa Peak rescue in the mountains. Video of the dizzying incident went viral. Screen grab from Facebook video

Phoenix firefighters rescued an injured 74-year-old hiker on Tuesday — but it was dizzying video of rescuers hoisting her to a helicopter that caught viewers’ attention, and now the crew is trying to explain what happened.

A clip of the incident, which was posted online by FOX 10 Phoenix, was viewed more than a million times on Facebook within hours. The video has tens of thousands of shares. In the clip, firefighters in a helicopter lift the woman off Piestewa Peak on a stretcher, which begins to spin uncontrollably as it nears the helicopter.

Rescuers tried to lower the stretcher again and then bring the woman back up, but the spinning continued, video shows.

The woman, who was rescued around 9 a.m., was taken to a local trauma center and has not been identified, the Associated Press reports. Firefighters said the wild ride left the woman dizzy and nauseated, but she’s in stable condition, ABC 15 reports.

Fire officials held a news conference on Tuesday afternoon to explain what happened.

“We were doing a hoist rescue — we do a lot of them,” Phoenix Fire Department lead pilot Paul Apolinar said at the news conference, which ABC 15 streamed on Facebook. “Sometimes when we bring the helicopter up from the ground it will start to spin, so we have a line attached to the basket to help prevent that. Today it didn’t.”

Apolinar said the Fire Department has used hoists 210 times in mountain rescues in the last six years, but the kind of spinning witnessed Tuesday has only been observed twice.

“This has happened in the past, but it’s been quite awhile,” said Derek Geisel, commander of the helicopter involved in the rescue. “In the past we’ve kind of learned some of the techniques to get rid of it. One you probably actually see in the video is when they start to lower the load, it actually does start to stop. Then we slowly brought it back up … it started to spin again.”

Again and again, their efforts to correct the spinning came up short.

“We brought it down again, brought it back up, hoping some of the spin would lessen — which it didn’t, obviously,” Geisel said.

Geisel said he got some forward flight to reduce the spin, which allowed rescuers to pull the injured woman up to the aircraft.

“It’s very rare,” Apolinar said. “It’s just something that occurs every now and then.”

Apolinar said there are firefighters stationed on the ground during those rescues to pull on a line and add tension to prevent spin, but if it’s a strong, windy day sometimes “it’ll spin on us.”

“When it’s down low toward the ground it’s not subject as much to the rotor wash of the helicopter,” Apolinar explained. “But as the basket comes up and it nears the helicopter, the basket will start to interact with the rotor wash of the helicopter — and that’s when it tends to spin. It wants to windmill.”

Fire officials said the woman was well packaged in the stretcher and was safe throughout the incident. She had suffered facial and head injuries after a ground-level fall during the hike, which was why first responders began the rescue, officials said.

“Reports from the hospital are that she is stable and suffered no effects from the spinning,” Capt. Bobby Dubnow, a Phoenix Fire Department technical rescue technician, said at the press conference.

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