A California Highway Patrol officer remains in serious condition after being struck in the head by a helicopter rotor blade during a fateful rescue mission involving several Bay Area residents in the Shasta Trinity National Forest July 5.
Roles were unexpectedly reversed and strangers were thrown together in a life-saving teamwork effort that took place in the wilderness near Redding. The Air Force veteran who helped save the CHP officer—in spite of his own injuries—gave his account of the event to reporters Wednesday.
The dramatic story has slowly unfolded since the return of the three disparate groups of people that fate was brought together.
U.S. Air Force 99th Medical Operations Squadron Cardio-Pulmonary Flight commander and ICU director Maj. Jeremy Kilburn, M.D., was hiking around Big Bear Lake with lifelong friend Dan Grasso of Sunnyvale when his German Shepherd bumped into him, causing the 34-year-old Las Vegas resident to misstep and fracture his leg.
The accident happened at around 1 p.m. and, with the help of Grasso, Kilburn managed to get to a snow patch to ice the leg. By 3 p.m., the two managed to make it to their tent over 100 yards away, where two camp counselors they had met the day before found them, Kilburn said.
The Palo Alto-based Camp Unalayee counselors Elizabeth Fitch and Bryce Harbert, both residents of Santa Cruz, were leading a group of young campers on a two-day hike at the lake.
Fitch and Harbert used their CB radio system to connect with their base camp and put a call into CHP for a rescue helicopter.
CHP arrived on the scene at 4 p.m., landing on an upslope rock not much bigger than the helicopter, Grasso said. It was about 100 yards downhill from Kilburn's location.
The helicopter's main rotor blade struck CHP flight officer and paramedic Tony Stanley in the head while he was getting out, leaving him critically injured.
"I was sitting on rock, feeling pathetic from breaking my leg, and in the blink of an eye, everything changed," Kilburn said. "I was very scared for this guy's (Stanley's) life. I just wanted to help him so much."
Harbert and Fitch met Kilburn and Grasso down the hill to help treat Stanley with Kilburn's guidance.
Harbert applied pressure to the officer's wounds while Fitch manually pumped air into Stanley to help him with his breathing.
Stanley was in and out of consciousness, Kilburn said.
CHP Officer Brian Henderson, the other member of the two-man rescue crew, insisted that Fitch join Kilburn and Stanley on the helicopter to make the 41-mile flight to Mercy Medical Center in Redding to get both men treated, Kilburn said.
Fitch was chosen mainly for weight purposes but her role on the flight was vital to Stanley's survival, Kilburn said. She applied pressure to Stanley's wound, stabilized his spine, and assisted with Kilburn's needs.
"Her role in this is far larger than mine," said Kilburn.
Henderson landed the helicopter on the medical center's helipad adjacent to the building and the two patients were rushed in to be treated.
"If it weren't for the other three there, the officer would be dead," said Kilburn, who blames himself for the whole incident. "If I didn't break my leg, this never would have happened."
Kilburn was discharged from Mercy Medical on Thursday night and returned to Las Vegas by Saturday. He returned to work Monday morning, getting around with crutches and a wheelchair.
During a news conference, Kilburn expressed feelings of guilt for his accident that required the need for the helicopter—and the ensuing catastrophic injury to the CHP officer—in the first place.
In remarks reported by Matt Bigler on KCBS-AM Radio, Kilburn took pains to deflect attention that focused on his role, being a field trauma doctor in saving Stanley's life. Would Stanley have died had he not been fortuitously been a trauma doctor? Yes, he said. But would Stanley have died had not Harbert and Fitch been there to help administer first aid, and would he have died had not Grasso been able to carry him to the helicopter direct the emergency response? And would he have died had not Fitch been able to ride in the helicopter and keep pressure on the wound and Stanley's spine stabilized. All answers were yes, at every turn in the event, he said.
Stanley remains hospitalized, CHP Lt. Scott Fredrick said. Henderson is on leave to recover from the traumatic incident. There is no timetable for his return, Fredrick said.
—Bay City News Service with contributions from Los Altos Patch Editor L.A. Chung