Two airmen and five soldiers.
One officer and six enlisted troops.
Two reservists and five National Guardsmen.
Seven men and women reporting for their monthly training on a cloudy Sunday in March, unaware of an impending test requiring a grade of no less than exceptional.
A test of courage
Colorado Air National Guard Capt. Eric Miller and Staff Sgt. Robyn “Red” Ryder were carpooling to Buckley Air Force Base in her SUV. Travelling south on Airport Road, they witnessed a car speed past them. The green sedan was swerving erratically when it hit the median, flipped end over end as high as 30 feet then burst into flames.
U.S. Army Reserve 1st Sgt. Esley Gustafson was driving north when he noticed that a car had crossed the center median and was airborne, upside down, flames shooting from the hood – and it was headed right toward him.
USAR Sgt. Mariano Delao was also driving north when he heard a loud thud and saw the car coming from the southbound side of the road. He, too, noticed the car was on fire.
“It was like something you only see in the movies,” he said.
The fiery projectile came to a shattering halt, upright, about 20 meters away from Gustafson, and about 50 meters in front of Delao, facing south in the northbound side of the road.
Instinctively, the troops parked their vehicles and rushed to the crash victims’ aid, adrenaline pumping through their veins as they launched the spontaneous rescue operation.
“I ran over to the car and was able to pry open the driver’s side door,” said Gustafson. “I could see another service member – I would later learn it was Capt. Miller – on the passenger side, trying to get that door open.”
The passenger-side door was jammed, so Miller, an emergency room and intensive care unit nurse with 35 years of experience in emergency medicine, pounded on the window, ordering the woman in the passenger seat to get out of the car. He then raced to the other side and saw Gustafson reaching into the vehicle.
The woman tumbled out of the driver’s-side door and into Ryder’s arms – nearly bowling over Gustafson in the process.
The woman was screaming uncontrollably, disoriented and in shock, said Ryder, a medical technician in the COANG and an ER nurse with 15 years of combined experience in firefighting and emergency medicine.
In the course of the accident, the driver of the wrecked vehicle had been thrown under the dash, and was unconscious and unresponsive, said Miller.
Gustafson, a combat engineer who has used his combat lifesaving skills in Afghanistan, managed to get his arms under the man and untangle him from the vehicle’s interior.
“He pulled the driver out with such ease, almost like he was some superhero,” said Delao, who was dialing 911.
A test of skill
In a flash, Miller and Ryder aided Gustafson, ensuring spinal precautions as they carried the man from the burning wreckage.
“We placed the patient supine (face up) on the roadway and I assumed the area near the patient’s head,” said Miller. “The patient remained unconscious and unresponsive, and was having difficulty breathing. I performed a jaw thrust to open his airway, which relieved his respiratory distress. At this point, the vehicle’s engine compartment was nearly fully engulfed in flames.”
As Miller evaluated the male, Ryder escorted the woman away from the burning car and began a head-to-toe trauma assessment.
Due to the mechanism of the accident, Miller deduced that the car’s fuel tank may have been ruptured.
“Because of the potential of an explosion, I directed our team to move the (male) patient a safe distance from the burning vehicle while trying to maintain spinal precautions and support for an obviously-broken left leg,” said Miller.
Gustafson directed Delao, a preventive medicine team leader, and Spc. Eric Schubert, a helicopter electrician in the Colorado Army National Guard who had just arrived, to help carry the male patient farther away from the flames.
Gustafson then raced back to his truck for his combat lifesaver kit, which contained gloves, bandages, scissors, an airway nasopharyngeal kit, intravenous injection kits and other advanced first-aid supplies.
By this time, several more service members had seen the green sedan on fire in the northbound lane and stopped to assist.
A test of knowledge
Ryder left the woman, whose injuries didn’t appear to be life-threatening, in the care of COARNG Master Sgt. Mark Yoder, an electronics technician, and another Soldier, an unidentified sergeant first class, who had just arrived.
Yoder and the other Soldier did their best to keep the woman calm and distract her from the situation as they waited for emergency services to arrive.
“I returned to the male patient, who was now beginning to move, and protected his airway,” said Miller. “1st Sgt. Gustafson had returned with his CLS kit, and he held C-spine immobilization while we cut off the patient’s clothing and I initiated an IV in the patient’s right forearm.”
Ryder assumed second-in-command of the medical team while initiating an IV in the patient’s other arm.
Delao, Schubert and Spc. Melissa Bomar, a telecommunications specialist in the COARNG who had just arrived, worked together to cut off the patient’s remaining clothing, check him for further injuries and attend to his injured leg while helping hold IV bags.
Sirens wailed nearby, reminding the troops – and their patients – that even more help was on the way.
An exceptional score
When firefighters from Aurora Fire Department’s Engine 5, and paramedics from Rural Metro Ambulance, arrived on the scene, they witnessed what others in the lifesaving business might deem remarkable:
“Seeing the treatment being performed by our team, the fire paramedic stated that it looked like our team had the situation under control and handed us C-collars,” Miller said.
Paramedics from Rural Metro Ambulance agreed, and provided backboards and scissors.
“In my 25 years of EMS experience, I found this to be the ultimate compliment,” said Miller, who had expected to give a brief report then transition patient care to the paramedics.
Instead, the paramedics provided medical oversight as the troops continued treatment.
“The paramedics assessed the patients’ medical needs and determined that the care being provided by the troops was very good, so it wasn’t necessary for the paramedics to intervene,” said Capt. Allen Robnett, public information officer for the Aurora Fire Department.
The troops’ swift actions also freed the firefighters to suppress the flames without the added challenge of extricating crash victims, Robnett said.
After receiving the additional medical equipment, the troops placed a C-collar on the patient, then rolled him and evaluated his back and spine.
“The captain (Miller) took charge and every one of the service members fell into line,” said Nathaniel Kelley, a paramedic with Rural Metro Ambulance. “He didn’t have to say anything twice.”
Because of this, Kelley said, it was easy for the paramedics and troops to work in tandem to place the injured man on a backboard, then onto a stretcher, then into the ambulance idling nearby.
The ambulance then sped away.
Meanwhile, the female patient had taken shelter from the crisp March winds at the bottom of a short hill. The newly-formed team of troops and paramedics worked quickly and diligently to ensure her safety as they immobilized her spine, strapped her onto a backboard and stretcher, and then rolled her up the hill and across the street to a second ambulance.
Once the two ambulances had gone, Bomar noticed that a pedestrian, who had apparently witnessed the accident, was displaying apparent symptoms of shock.
“She was shivering, a bit pale … and just looked … empty,” said Bomar.
Bomar approached the witness and offered her some juice and a jacket. Bomar then lent a shoulder to cry on as the witness described her disbelief and terror. Shortly after that, Bomar cued a paramedic to attend to the witness.
“It wasn’t just the passengers in the burning car who were affected by the accident,” said Bomar. “It was a life-altering event for everyone.”
After the flames were successfully suppressed, the troops gave their statements to the authorities.
“They did what they had to do – upholding their oaths – and wasted no time in rendering aid,” said Officer Roland Albert of the Aurora Police Department.
Several then stayed behind to help clean up debris that had scattered across the roadway and surrounding fields.
Was it divine intervention that brought these seven men and women together? Coincidence? Fate? Or is seven really a lucky number?
“This response was 100 percent military training,” said Ryder. “We’re trained to act.”
“Our training as military members helps us to organize a chaotic scene, each doing his or her part to help where needed,” said Gustafson.
“This was business as usual,” said Yoder. “Everyone was doing his or her job. There was no panic or frustration, only military personnel doing what they’d been trained to do.”
Regardless of faith or conviction, though, one thing is clear: Not one of these guardsmen and reservists would have been there, at that place and time, had they not been scheduled to train March 6.
“The ability of this team to assimilate into a high-speed, effective unit – and the access to the Army CLS kit – saved two lives,” said Miller.
It’s been reported that an eighth soldier, a sergeant first class, also assisted in this rescue operation. The still-unknown E-7 didn’t stay to give a statement afterward, and no one recognized his name or his unit patch. If you are this soldier, we ask that you step forward to be recognized for your efforts.