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Rescue Airmen save Arizona woman who fell 200 ft into mineshaft

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Abbey Rieves
  • 355th Wing Public Affairs

The civil search and rescue mission call came on a Sunday afternoon–A woman; possible broken bones; 300 miles away; trapped; 200 feet deep; mineshaft.

Out of three possible rescue units, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Cell selected the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Tucson, Arizona, for this rescue mission.

The 563rd tasked the 48th Rescue Squadron, made up of pararescuemen and tactical air control party specialists, and the 55th Rescue Squadron, which operates the HH-60W Jolly Green II helicopters. In less than one hour, the 48th RQS assembled an 8-man Rotary Wing Team –the name for an assembled rescue team tasked with a mission—simultaneous to the 55th RQS who dispatched two HH-60Ws; continued and regular upkeep to the HH-60Ws was credited to the 55th Rescue Generation Squadron, who cranked the wrenches and serviced the helicopter before take-off.

The U.S. Air Force PJs and combat rescue officers from the mission brought me into their team room to recount the story. Surprisingly well lit, my eyes looked at the table as I sat down. Printed pictures of various rescue moments from past missions and deployments were well-preserved under the glass table protector.

Like many members in the rescue community, I could tell it was strange for them to have a Public Affairs specialist interview them. I’ve grown to understand it is very normal for PJs to prefer anonymity and little to no public attention. 

The first CRO started to recount the story. He had short brown hair with strong features that matched his confidence when he spoke.

Nearly three-hundred miles away, a woman was trapped at the bottom of a mineshaft. It was a technical rescue; a rope rescue he explained. It was something they had trained and prepared for. Quiet murmurs of agreement carried out from his teammates at the table.

I asked them what it was like to receive the call, that call. Immediately they all smiled in an excited way. I could tell that they loved their jobs. One spoke up and said it is always a bittersweet moment; that saving someone’s life is such an amazing experience, but always linked to someone’s worst day.

DM’s PJs are always on call, offering pararescue capabilities not only in combat conditions, but also in humanitarian situations worldwide.

Like a rehearsed play, the next service member continued the story where the CRO left off, but I know it wasn’t planned that way. From junior enlisted to field grade officers, all the Airmen at the table had an unspoken bond of mutual respect.

He said, the 55th RQS’ aircrew expertly navigated and placed the RW Team less than 100 meters from the mineshaft, landed in the middle of extremely uneven terrain in the dead of night with no incident; a true testament to the abilities of these battle-hardened pilots and Special Mission Aviators.

A noncommissioned officer who I thought was the most excited to share his piece of the story, cupped his hand around his face. He animated the action and said they yelled and yelled into the mineshaft, but distance silenced their calls and equally suppressed the woman’s cries for help.

Picking up where that NCO left off, a PJ medic with curly brown hair and piercing blue eyes emphasized the importance of rescuing the woman, and providing more definitive and effective medical care that could not be achieved in the mineshaft. At that point, the woman had been underground for nearly 12 hours, with no contact to the surface, alone and quite literally in the dark from the extensive coordination above the surface. Her friend, who called the authorities for help, was equally stressed above the surface. 

The second CRO, who had blonde hair and was observantly strong, credited the multi-agency efforts in the rescue, not just the Air Force. The La Paz County Sheriff Office’s work truck provided a steady anchoring point for the PJs to descend into the vertically sloped passageway to the woman. Supplied with a breathing apparatus and a device to test the safety of the air, the medic went down. The second medic, who was typing on a laptop, peeked up but continued to type as he added information, underground air quality can be volatile.

With the underground air safe to breathe, the CRO who started the recount, explained this rescue was a moderate risk, with dry-rotted wooden support beams and an unknown underground navigation route.

In the process of becoming Rescue, these Airmen were built into ready, willing and capable warfighters. These human weapon systems were further enhanced when assigned to the 355th Wing, which is one of the Air Force’s only active-duty wing’s dedicated to combat search and rescue. After seeing so many training exercises, it confirms how seriously they take their job, and how precisely they execute. Then I saw the switch flip from mission to human, and watched each members’ eyes fill with compassion when recounting this story. 

The PJs made survivor contact, provided medical treatment to the woman’s broken ankle and successfully extracted her from the complex man-made cave. She was then air evacuated to Yuma Regional Medical Center by the same Helicopters and Aircrew from the 55th that brought the RW Team to the mission site. Once at the hospital, the second PJ medic physically carried her into the hospital, and handed her off to the YRMC medical team, finishing the mission on April 7.

Moments like this make me proud to be a part of an Air Force that has sworn an oath to protect the country and community they serve in.