Evidence refutes claim about chopper availability after MP shootings

MARYSVILLE — It was a story that grew wings and has persisted despite mounting evidence the conclusions were wrong.

Within days of the Oct. 24 shootings at Marysville Pilchuck High School, people in Seattle began questioning whether everything possible was done to save the victims’ lives.

In particular, they wondered why paramedics took the grievously wounded students by ambulance to Everett’s Providence Regional Medical Center instead of loading them onto helicopters for a flight to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the region’s top-ranked trauma hospital.

In reality, the two helicopters sent to help that morning weren’t close enough to make a difference, and firefighters weren’t even told about a third medical chopper that reportedly was in the area.

Airlift Northwest released a timeline three days after the shootings describing how a helicopter carrying trained trauma nurses was hovering over the high school when it was waved off by Marysville firefighters.

But interviews, emergency radio traffic recordings from that day, emergency dispatch logs and other public records cast doubt on that version of events.

When paramedics in Marysville began transporting patients to Everett they were told by dispatchers that Airlift Northwest helicopters, sent from Seattle and Bellingham, were still roughly 20 minutes away.

Moments before the helicopters were canceled, Airlift Northwest told emergency dispatchers those helicopters still were 14 minutes away from the high school, records show.

Airlift Northwest now acknowledges the only helicopter it had near the school as the emergency unfolded wasn’t even responding to the shootings. Instead, it was flying back to base in Arlington after completing an unrelated call.

“They were flying their normal route and from their vantage point saw the activity on the ground. They were not part of the Airlift Northwest deployment to the scene, but were definitely over the area,” said Susan Gregg, a spokeswoman for both Harborview and Airlift Northwest. Both are components of the medical program run by the University of Washington.

The helicopter that was reported to be over the high school — a different aircraft than Airlift Northwest listed in its original timeline — wasn’t in contact with ground crews. Indeed, firefighters didn’t learn of its presence until days later.

In addition, Airlift Northwest did not have access to radio channels that would have allowed direct communication with local firefighters, records show. Similar problems arose in the hours after the March 22 mudslide in Oso, which killed 43 people.

The school shootings added urgency to a conversation about improving radio connections between medical helicopters and Snohomish County police and firefighters. The discussions were already taking place.

Greg Corn, chief of the Marysville Fire District, was at the high school the morning of the shootings. He thought the helicopters circling overhead were all television media.

Marysville paramedics focused on trying to save lives that morning, he said. They followed their training and protocols, which included describing the nature of the patients’ injuries to emergency doctors at Providence. The doctors told them to bring all of the victims to Providence, as quickly as possible, Corn said.

“Even if we would have known that helicopter was there, we still would have gone to Providence,” he said. “That was where we were directed.”

A large medical team was waiting at the Everett hospital. It included two heart surgeons, two neurosurgeons, a chest surgeon, a vascular surgeon and 12 emergency room physicians.

Dispatch logs show that each of the four ambulance rides from Marysville to Everett, a roughly 11-mile trip, took 12 minutes or less. The logs and other documents were obtained by The Daily Herald under the state public records law.

Shooter Jaylen Fryberg, 15, and victim Zoe Galasso, 14, died at the scene. Shaylee Chuckulnaskit and Gia Soriano, 14, and Andrew Fryberg, 15, all were rushed to Providence with gunshot wounds to the head. Nate Hatch, 14, was shot in the jaw. He and Andrew both wound up at Harborview in the hours after the shootings. Nate is the only shooting victim to survive.

Waiting for a helicopter to land in Marysville and to safely load patients would have taken at least 10 minutes, plus time in the air for transport, landing and unloading at the hospital, Corn said.

When the wounded students were being loaded into ambulances, “none of those (airlift) helicopters would have been overhead, none of the helicopters we were aware of,” Corn said.

The fire chief said he is “very comfortable and confident in the decisions and actions our personnel took at the scene (and) that those decisions and those actions were in the best interest of those patients — even after the light of scrutiny.”

Steve Guptill, the assistant fire chief in Monroe, serves as board chairman for SNOPAC, the dispatch center serving much of the county, and heads up SNOPAC’s advisory group on fire-service operations. He also is chairman of the committee within the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs Association that looks at emergency operation issues and makes recommendations for countywide changes.

He has examined the steps taken after the school shootings by Marysville fire battalion chief Scott Goodale, who also was on the leadership team in Darrington in the first week after the mudslide.

“I think he made an excellent decision under the circumstances he was dealing with,” Guptill said.

For a long time, airlift helicopters have been recognized as “the gold standard of rapid transport,” Guptill said. However, in recent months and years, firefighters have realized that ambulances often can be faster when considering the “golden hour,” the window after a traumatic injury when life-saving efforts can be most effective.

Medics making split-second calls at the scene have to consider the time it takes to get a patient into a helicopter and off to Seattle, Guptill said. That includes weather and traffic conditions.

“When we start thinking about the golden hour and what’s best for our patients, we have to consider all the pieces of the puzzle,” he said.

Guptill is among those in Snohomish County focused on improving radio communications with Airlift Northwest.

Days before the shootings, Airlift Northwest asked the county fire chiefs association for access to additional firefighter radio channels, Guptill said. The agreement now is moving through the final levels of approval.

A similar expansion of radio access for Airlift Northwest began earlier this year for the Snohomish County sheriff’s helicopters, chief pilot Bill Quistorf said. The sheriff’s helicopter team provides on-scene air traffic control during major emergencies in the county.

Making changes takes time because Airlift Northwest has to reprogram all of its aircraft radios, Quistorf said.

Giving Airlift Northwest access to additional local radio channels should improve communication during complex incidents, SNOPAC Executive Director Kurt Mills said.

“They already had permission on our radio system, but they’re expanding the number of talk groups that they have,” he said.

Still, improved communications likely would not have changed transport decisions at Marysville Pilchuck, officials say.

The emergency medical response to the Marysville Pilchuck shootings was reviewed last month in a private meeting with paramedics, doctors from Providence and Harborview, Airlift Northwest and state health officials.

Those involved have declined to talk about it, citing patient confidentiality.

Corn said he feels questions raised about the decisions his crews made in Marysville were put to rest once the facts were shared.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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