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Clackamas County Sheriff's Department Spokesman Briefs Press

Aired May 31, 2002 - 12:00   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Live, from Mt. Hood, where a news conference is about to take place, with the Clackamas County sheriff's department, which organized the ill-fated rescue attempt yesterday. Let's listen in.

SGT. NICK WATT, CLACKAMAS COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: OK. I'm Sergeant Nick Watt with the Clackamas County sheriff's office search and rescue unit. I was incident commander for this rescue.

The first thing I would like to do is let you understand that this was a multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency response. And prior to getting started with the step-by-step account of what had happened, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the group of individuals for what I consider to be a extremely courageous and heroic effort in this tragedy. And the units I will be getting to as we go down the line.

What I would like to do is just recap what happened yesterday. The first thing that happened was at 9:00 a.m. we received a call from a paramedic up on the mountain to the 911 center at Clackamas County. What had happened was we were told that nine climbers had fell off the mountain and into a crevasse. There was approximately -- or excuse 10,700 feet. It involved three separate climbing groups.

What occurred at that time was apparently there were four at the top, two in the middle and three at the bottom. And the first four, apparently two of them started to slip. They were unable to self- arrest, which means to stop -- the other two climbers were not able to stop the two climbers that were falling. They went into the next two climbers, and then those went into the three climbers.

Of those climbers, we have three deceased. And we immediately set out a full-scale rescue, which involved the American Medical Response reach and treat teams, Portland Mountain Rescue, Mount Hood Ski Patrol, U.S. Army National Guard 1042 (ph), medical (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ambulance and the U.S. Air Force Reserve 304 Rescue Squadron of the 939th Rescue Ring helicopters, as well as live flight (ph).

Initial injuries from the climbing accident were four in critical condition, two non-life-threatening, and of course the three deceased. During the evacuation, when we were going after the third critically injured individual, the helicopter from the Air Force 304 crashed into the mountain, as everybody had saw on the news. Rescue made contact with the six members, as we sent in more helicopters -- we had approximately five to six helicopters at one time. We sent them up to contact the six crew members. One of the members was critically injured, and the other five had non-life-threatening injuries.

And the helicopters were able to evacuate the remaining two critically injured climbers and the crew members of the downed craft. And this was done by 410, all remaining non-life-threatening injuries people were taken off of the mountain.

As far as the conditions of the people that went to the hospital, I have a list of the injured military personnel that were entered into Emanuel's Trauma Unit. Andrew Cantfield (ph) is in good condition. Martin Mills (ph), the one that was critically injured, has been upgraded to serious condition. Daryn Shore (ph) is in fair condition. Of the climbers, Harry Sluiter (ph), who went to OHSU, is in fair condition. Christopher Carne (ph) is in fair condition. Thomas Hillman (ph) is in fair condition. Jeremiah Moffitt (ph) is in good condition. The other ones were treated and released.

And as far as the helicopter and as far as what we are doing right now, we have the rescue units on their way up. We told them to be safe, because the conditions are not as good as we expected them to be this morning, so it may take a little bit more time to bring down the other deceased, but it will occur with probably within the next two hours. That is what we are hoping for. And at that time, we will be able to contact the medical examiners office and make positive IDs of the three deceased individuals.


WATT: No, they haven't, but para-rescue people are going to go up there and maintain security around it. One of the colonels from the Air Force called and said that he would be expecting, probably within 24 to 48 hours, an investigative crew to come up, and at this time from maybe 8,700 feet up, the mountain is closed to all climbers.


WATT: They are going to have to work it out with the U.S. Forest Service, but it sounds like that is going to be the case.


WATT: Well, we were hoping we would be -- the conditions would be like yesterday afternoon, but obviously the sun has not been up that long so the conditions up there are still a little bit more icy than we've expected. Yesterday afternoon, when all this occurred, the snow had melted and not been as bad as icy conditions as it is today, and...


WATT: Just -- just the slipping. We are afraid of the slipping. We do not want anybody to slip down. They've got their clamp-ons on and they've got their ice axes, but we just want them to go slow and easy. QUESTION: At the time of the actual accident, the first group to go -- was that the group from (UNINTELLIGIBLE), do you know?


QUESTION: Which group was it?

WATT: It was -- it was a group of individuals. Just a group of individuals, it was not a group from the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) fire department.


WATT: Pardon?

QUESTION: Was it is the group from New York, or another group?

WATT: I don't know.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and that contributed to the fall?

WATT: We didn't -- the conditions out there yesterday were supposed to be excellent for climbing.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on the way down or on the way up?

WATT: They were ascending. They were going to summit.

QUESTION: The future of the mountain (UNINTELLIGIBLE) closed. What is the prospects for opening it?

WATT: Like I said, the U.S. Forest Service is going to have to decide that, along with the military. At the present, it looks like it's going to be at least minimum 24 to 48 hours that it will be closed to climbers above the 8,700 feet.

QUESTION: How was it put to you that who was going to take over this investigation, and when can you describe how you were informed of that, what they told you?

WATT: I was told that the military would be taking over the investigation, as soon as the deceased comes down. Clackamas County sheriff's office is going to discontinue the IC (ph) and hand it all over to military.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) how much will that affect your services on this mountain, if they were to leave in other rescue attempts?

WATT: Well, I can only tell you that in the last week we've had three times where we needed the 939th or 304th or the 1042nd. All of them were life-threatening. One case was deceased, and the other case was just last Thursday. And then of course, this Thursday.

If they were to leave, that would hurt us quite a bit, because we definitely, in life-death situation, we cannot get a snow cat and climbers up to the top where we may need to, where they can get there in seconds.

QUESTION: The choppers go there -- choppers go there all the time, it sounds like?

WATT: They do. Yes. We definitely -- I believe we need them.

QUESTION: As far as the helicopter accident, do you have any more information on wind shear, on loss of power, on the way that the helicopter, if it was overloaded or not, anything on what has caused the helicopter to start to back slide?

WATT: No, there is not even conjecture on that right now, because the military is waiting to do the investigation.

QUESTION: Based on your knowledge of how best to climb the mountain, is 9:00 late to be trying to reach the summit?

WATT: No, because normally what happens is when people do start climbing the mountain, they usually start at early morning. They usually try to start almost at first daylight. And then climb up. But no, where they were at, they were probably where they should have been if they left early in the morning.

QUESTION: Sir, there has been some speculation about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) number of people on the mountain and regulating that somehow. What is your perspective on (OFF-MIKE)?

WATT: That will be something that the U.S. Forest Service will have to decide. I really -- one way or the other, does not make any difference. We'll just do our job the way we have done it in the past.


WATT: Pardon?

QUESTION: Is there any discussion at all about changing (OFF- MIKE).

WATT: No, there is no discussion about that at this time.

QUESTION: If the military or the Forest Service asked you for your opinion, would you tell them you think there is too many people climbing up there without enough (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in place?

WATT: No, I probably wouldn't even comment on that, because as far as I am concerned, again, we will do our job the way we have been doing our job for 147 years.

QUESTION: The three life-threatening incidents in a week, that does not seem excessive to you?

WATT: Any life-threatening situation is excessive to me, regardless whether it's one or 20.

QUESTION: But three in a week, I mean, does that suggest that there should be more... WATT: No, no, it doesn't. Like Angy (ph) says, there are thousands of people that climb that on, you know, during the climbing season, which is we are right in the middle of it. So, that does not seem excessive. I mean, yes, last week, it was a snow boarder, it was not a climber, and this time it just happened to be three people ended up climbing the mountain and dying.


WATT: Well, I talked with two of the people who were up there when the helicopter went down, and from all indication I got if it was not for the heroic acts of the pilot, because as you saw in the video, when it went down, he backed -- he actually backed away from the group. One of the crew members who was lowering down the stoke, he cut the cable so it did not take the patient with them, as well as the paramedic that was with them at the time too, and the pilot actually backed up when the helicopter started acting up and went away from those people because if he would have went down there, we would have probably had far more casualties than we had.

So in my estimation, it was a heroic effort by the pilot, and by the crew, period.

QUESTION: Are the FAA and NTSB here as well, do you know?

WATT: I don't know. They have been notified. It is up to them as to whether or not they are going to come up,. It may be just a complete military issue.

QUESTION: On the rescue, the helicopter itself did not pull people out of the crevasse, that was done on the ground, is that correct?

WATT: That is correct.

QUESTION: So all they were doing were airlifting. They have already airlifted some individuals in the way, and they were in the process of airlifting people?

WATT: Correct. We had already airlifted two critically injured people.

QUESTION: And the pilot also cut that hoist as he was backing away too, didn't he, or somebody did.

WATT: I think it was a crew chief.

QUESTION: Do you know who that was?

WATT: I don't know at this time.

QUESTION: The crew chief in the helicopter?

WATT: Yeah, he was in the helicopter.

QUESTION: That chopper had already pulled some -- they already made at least one...

WATT: No, no, that one had not.

QUESTION: You say that three bodies are in the crevasse, or not? I'm not sure.

WATT: The three bodies were in the crevasse.

QUESTION: Are they still in the crevasse?

WATT: No, we have two bodies out, and we are getting one body today.

QUESTION: There is only one remaining (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

WATT: There is only one remaining.


WATT: Not yet.

LIN: All right, you are listening to a news conference by the Clackamas County sheriff's department, giving the latest on the recovery of at least one more body up on Mount Hood from yesterday's tragic accident. Different groups of climbers, nine climbers in all trying to make it up, almost to the summit, when several of them started to fall into a crevasse. A rescue operation ensued, and then the rescue helicopter crashed as well.

CNN's Frank Buckley there monitoring the news conference as well from Mount Hood. Frank, it does not sound like, though, that the sheriff's department has much in the way of exactly what went wrong in the rescue operation?

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I mean I think that's the kind of information that is going to be a few weeks if not months away in terms of a final determination of what went wrong with that helicopter. We may start to hear more in the days ahead, but so far the sheriff's department is just trying to give us an update on where things stand.

We can tell you that there are seven people who remain hospitalized. Four climbers and three helicopter crews -- or crew members who are in that helicopter. Remarkably, the three helicopter crew members who remain hospitalized, none of them have suffered life- threatening injuries. The most serious is the flight engineer, Martin Mills (ph), 36 years old. He is he listed in serious condition. As you heard, his condition was upgraded from critical to serious condition. He has some internal injuries, a broken wrist and a leg injury, but remarkable that there helicopter crew members remain hospitalized; all of them expected to survive. That's great news for those people that were involved.

This all began yesterday at around 9:00 a.m. local time, when nine of these climbers fell into the crevasse. You heard the detail now provided by the sheriff's department. There were three groups of climbers, four in the first group, and then two separate groups following after that. The two of the climbers in that group of four began to slip and fall. They fell into the others, and we now have more information from those climbers themselves, describing exactly what happened.


COLE JOINER, CLIMBER: I saw the people coming toward us and tried to get out of the way. Jeff Pierce (ph) and I got out of the way, but Jeremiah Moffitt (ph) got hit by one of the guys coming down, and we just tried to self-arrest, but it did not do anything because there were several other people pulling us down into the crevasse. So I just remember my legs going over, and then just falling and being down there.

I couldn't see anything as I was falling. I just remember my feet going over and just looking up and then just hitting the back wall of the crevasse, so.

CLEVE JOINER, CLIMBER AND FIREFIGHTER: We were not all tied together, there were three separate teams. There was two at the top, tied together, a team of three tied together, and then our team of three, all those above the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), in that order, toward the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). So the two gave way, hit the other three, and those five hit our three, and went down into the crevasse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pretty much resigned to fact that, you know, there was very highly probable that he had, you know, was dead, and that they were all dead, and so, you know, we were -- it was kind of nice as things progressed to find out about five minutes later, 10 minutes later that he was actually up and walking around and helping out down there with the injured.

COLE JOINER: I climbed out with the ice ax, but Jeff stayed there until the last guy was out, and then the injured people we pulled out with a haul system.


BUCKLEY: And we're pushing it now to give you a live picture up and around the 10,000 foot level of the effort that's under way. You might be able to make out the figures of a few of the rescuers up who are up there now. We can tell you that some of the para-rescuers were up there all night guarding the helicopter, also standing watch over the body of the one climber who was not retrieved yesterday. Right now the effort that's under way up on that mountainside is to retrieve that final body, to bring it down. They'll bring it down on a snow cat, and then the effort up there in terms of the climbers, the rescue part of this will be completed.

The next phase will be the investigation. The helicopter is still up there. Investigators will go, examine the wreckage, and at some point actually remove that helicopter from the mountainside -- Carol.

LIN: Frank, this is the third such rescue this week alone in that area, and yet the Clackamas County sheriff's department certainly did not seem very concerned? In, fact Sergeant Watt specifically said he was not concerned, or even responsible for the climbers who make it up that mountain. Their job is to rescue them. Does that surprise you?

BUCKLEY: Well, no. This is some 10,000 people go up Mount Hood alone every year. People who are in this hobby or this undertaking, they know it is a very dangerous business. It can seem very easy when you look at it on television, you see people going up a mountainside, but understand that most of these people leave in the middle of the night, they usually start climbing at around midnight, or 1:00 a.m., they climb through the night. And then they begin coming back down in the morning hours, so that they have the best possible conditions.

Obviously, in mountain situations conditions can change very quickly, very rapidly, and there are a number of rescue agencies here in place that are here to take care of them, to try to rescue them when they do get into trouble. But 10,000 people a year here on this mountain alone -- in the 100-year history that they have been recording here on Mount Hood of climbing, some 130 people have died. So it is not unusual for one person at least every year to die. That is just how dangerous this business is, and people who do it know it.

LIN: Yeah, the risks you take -- and thank goodness those rescuers are there for when people do get into trouble. Thank you very much, Frank Buckley, reporting live from Mount Hood there.





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