Two volunteers from the Big Horn County Search and Rescue team were severely injured during a joint training exercise with the Wyoming National Guard Saturday afternoon at around 1:30 p.m. near Horse Creek Mesa in the Big Horn Mountains. The two men, Johannes Bates of Cowley and Jeff Schmidt of Shell, are part of the search and rescue team’s high angle ropes division.
According to Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn, the Wyoming National Guard was conducting a training exercise in hoist training with the two men dangling from a rope connected to the helicopter above the ground when the helicopter suffered engine failure. During the course of an emergency restart procedure, it was necessary for the helicopter crew to cut the line hoisting the volunteers, causing them to fall an estimated 30 feet. Search and rescue volunteers on the ground were stationed nearby and were able to assist the men within minutes of the fall.
In a press release issued by the Wyoming National Guard State Public Affairs Office, the incident involved a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter assigned to the Guard. The crew and helicopter are assigned to G Company, 2nd Battalion, 211th Aviation, Wyoming Army National Guard, a team that is frequently used to conduct search and rescue missions and provide firefighting capabilities.
“The Wyoming National Guard and local agencies frequently partner to train and improve search and rescue skills and increase capabilities,” the release stated.
The two volunteers each sustained serious back and limb injuries, Blackburn said. Once the helicopter was restarted, it landed and took the men to the Greybull airport. From Greybull, they were transported by ambulance to a hospital in Cody.
Bates was released from the hospital and is recovering at home. Schmidt was transported from Cody to a hospital in Billings, where he continues to receive treatment for his injuries.
“I don’t think the public recognizes how much risk these guys take,” Blackburn said. “Some people think it’s just a bunch of guys out having fun on these training exercises, but the reality is that every time these guys go out in the field they put their lives at risk for our citizens.”
Blackburn noted that there is currently a shortage of helicopter services available in the area for rescue operations.
“A lot of our helicopter services have pulled out for whatever reason and we don’t have much helicopter coverage on the Big Horns for the time being,” explained Blackburn. “We realize how big and how dangerous the Big Horns can be and feel it’s important to have helicopter solutions whenever possible.”
Blackburn said the group will continue to work with the National Guard to perfect this type of emergency rescue capability.
“This type of training isn’t stopping,” said Blackburn. “We’re going to continue training to get it right. This just goes to show how dangerous some of this stuff is and why we have to practice so much.
“These men put in hundreds of hours of training and they deserve our respect. I’m grateful to the volunteers for what they do, each and every one of them.”
Blackburn added that the incident has “strengthened” the search and rescue team’s resolve to work with the Wyoming National Guard helicopter crew, describing them as “very professional” and “good partners.”
“Our crews know the risks of the inherently dangerous work they are called to perform,” said Blackburn. “We will continue to train with the Wyoming National Guard and other partners to gain much needed proficiencies to serve our citizens in times of crisis.”
The state press release noted that, after a power failure in a helicopter, cutting the hoist line is part of standard safety procedures, “…in an effort to minimize loss of life, further injuries and destruction of equipment and property.”
According to Blackburn, this is the most serious injury accident the team has experienced in a long time.
“I don’t think people realize how often these volunteers go into harm’s way and how good their safety record is,” explained Blackburn. “Our wishes and prayers go out to these guys who were injured and to their families.”
The state release stated that the incident is under investigation.
By Patti Carpenter