HAWTHORNE ARMY DEPOT — Assistant Fire Chief Rick Schumann was in charge of the SOC Nevada fire station the night of March 18. The Guard Operations Center paged the station to alert them that an incident had happened at the Delta Bowl range where the Marines were conducting a training exercise.
“‘Is this another drill?’ was the first thought that ran through his mind,” Schumann said. “In December, the fire department had practiced a disaster drill of a mortar going off at Old Bomb.”
The second call, describing a mass casualty incident caused by a mortar exploding, quickly dispelled any thought of it being a training exercise. Schumann recognized that all employees at the station would need to respond to the scene and set in motion for a backfill team to arrive to man the station and for mutual aid to arrive at the scene. Fire Chief Rob Mathias was the first back to the station. He assumed the responsibility of obtaining additional assistance, contacting other agencies and the hospital and assisting with CareFlight coordination.
“Is this a training exercise? We just had one,” said Curtis Espinosa, firefighter/emergency medical technician, in describing his first thoughts when he heard the page.
Espinosa drove the first ambulance to the scene. He described feeling nervous and a little sick enroute to the scene, but did fine when he arrived as his training kicked in and he just did his job. He said the experience taught him a lot about himself and what his co-workers could do. Now, he knows more about his abilities and theirs and how they can coordinate efforts together utilizing each person’s strengths.
“You can’t train to see casualties or prepare for the emotions you feel, but knowing what you signed up for is huge,” said Espinosa.
He further explained that when he became a firefighter that he knew that he would see and deal with things that most people never encounter in their lifetime, but that he knew that was what he wanted to do in life.
“To be trained so much that you know, by instinct, what to do provides the ability to react quickly in an emergency. Every call, whether it is real or training, is a training exercise. We’re taught to ‘practice like you play.’ I hope I never face anything like that again. But it’s good to know I’m prepared as much as I can be. Training is key. Training makes the department as good as it can be,” declared Espinosa.
“And the people (as good as they can be),” added Schumann.
“Especially management,” responded Espinosa.
Schumann summarized, “All the people.”
Espinosa was very impressed with the initial response of the Marines Corps personnel at the incident site. The doctor, medics and corpsmen had IVs and triage started and patients readied for transport.
“It was exceptional. I can’t say enough about it,” said Espinosa. “I also can’t say enough about what the SOC and Mineral County Fire Department guys did. I didn’t go to the hospital, but everything I heard about them was that they also all acted above and beyond,” he added.
Firefighter/EMT Robert Sasser was also on shift the night of March 18. He related that he immediately wondered if it was another one of the training instructor’s drills and was going to be angry if it was, because he had been sleeping quite well.
In his seventeen years of experience as a firefighter/EMT, this is the second mass casualty incident where he was called to the scene.
“I was hoping not to have a second. I definitely hope there will never be a third,” said Sasser.
He shared the story of the first incident when nine people were thrown from a van. None was wearing seatbelts. The van flipped several times and each time, people were ejected. Four of the nine were CareFlighted, but all survived.
Sasser told us that this was different because there was already a loss of life when he arrived on the scene. He said he immediately started working with two corpsmen on a wounded Marine for 20 to 30 minutes.
“The wounds were so severe that we weren’t successful. But it wasn’t for lacking of trying,” said Sasser.
He recounted that they were still able to communicate with the injured man for about 15 minutes and tried to encourage him. He said it was about time to move him to the helicopter when they lost him.
When he was gone, the doctor, on scene, said, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
“We all shared in the grief together as we hugged one another and cried,” Sasser described. “To me he was a patient, but to the corpsmen and doctor working on him, he was a friend. They’d lived, slept, ate and been in combat together.”
He divulged that another thing that made this especially difficult for him was to see someone that young die.
“I mean, he could have been one of my kids,” he said.
Sasser related that he was unable to attend either of the sessions with the Critical Incident Stress Management team due to his schedule, but he said that he was able to talk with the chaplain from the Joint Munitions Command.
“It was really good talking with Chaplain Jarvis. He’s good at his job. He’d seen things like it and could relate. Talking with him really helped me,” stated Sasser.
Schumann interjected that he had been able to attend the critical incident stress training which had also been helpful.
Sasser said, “There is one thing I would like to add. Once it happened, from the time we got paged, the Marines did a good job. They did have a plan. They got us where we needed to go; their triage worked. They provided clear direction and were on top of what was going on.”
“It was organized chaos,” added Schumann.
“You could tell they had the training to know what to do when things go wrong,” continued Sasser.
Sasser advised that the fire department also had a lot of mass-casualty training and listed over a dozen classes and certifications that are required for all SOC Fire Department personnel.
“They really put you through the wringer,” he declared.
Schumann expressed his thankfulness for the recent drill they had done which had helped prepare the responders, in advance, for the emergency situation.
“Although the terrain was different, there were some similarities. The drill definitely helped with the response,” Schumann said.
He further explained that in the past, drills were all comprehensive; everything imaginable was happening at the same time. He told us that drills are planned within the realm of possibility. Part of the object of the drill is to make it as realistic as possible and to pre-plan what their actions would be.
“Pre-planning is one of the best activities we can do in being prepared for an emergency,” Schumann said.
Hawthorne Army Depot Commander, Lt. Col. Craig Short commended their efforts.
“Our hearts go out to all the families impacted by this tragic loss, but we take solace in knowing that in the midst of crisis, the first responders in the unit, here on the depot and within the community, did everything in their power to minimize loss of life,” he said. “Their efforts on that fateful night saved lives.”