Local Cooperation Turns 'Total Chaos' Into Streamlined I-80 Response

It was zero visibility out there, the worst conditions that most local responders have ever experienced. One called it "total chaos"; another said it was "complete devastation."

And then there was the clock. It was ticking, and responders knew they had a short window before more injuries—and more deaths—would result.

HGH EMS Rescue Paramedic Andrew Stephen was the first medical on scene along with Monique Rose, also a paramedic. "I just had this gut feeling," said Stephen, "that this was going to be bad."

It was. The dispatch from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office could not have prepared responders for what they were going to see: 27 vehicles—19 of them semi trailers—strewn across both lanes of the interstate.

But Stephen said when he and Rose arrived, the Nevada Highway Patrol was already there, sheriff's deputies were ahead of them and triage, with excellent direction from the first responders, was able to begin immediately.

That seemed to establish a pattern for the next four hours as responders from all areas of Humboldt County streamed in to help.

Paramedic Charles Paddock summed up the result: "I was impressed with how organized it ended up being."

Humboldt County Sheriff's Dispatch sent out the call shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, June 10, after motorists reported near-apocalyptic conditions that would initially send 26 people to the HGH Emergency Department, three of them in critical condition.

Ravi Dyer, a 51-year-old truck driver from Chicago, Illinois, was the lone casualty.

Eleven ambulances and rescue units, including a unit from Lander County EMS, were on scene. The ambulance from the HGH substation in McDermitt arrived to cover the system in Winnemucca.

Other responding agencies included the Nevada Highway Patrol, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, the Winnemucca Police Department, the City of Winnemucca Volunteer Fire Department, the Winnemucca Rural Volunteer Fire Department, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the Nevada Department of Transportation and Lander County EMS.

The Lovelock Ambulance and Battle Mountain Fire were also on standby, and Grass Valley Fire and Newmont Mine Rescue were waiting at the ambulance station to clean up rigs and restock in case they needed to head out again immediately.

Because there were so many accident victims, the Winnemucca Police Department also brought in a transport van, and Coach America showed up with a passenger bus.

Humboldt County and area industry water trucks also were on scene to quell the dust, which HGH EMS Rescue Medical Commander Ken Whittaker said immediately helped responders in their efforts to aid victims.

Whittaker said all patients were off-scene and in various stages of recovery by approximately 9 p.m. Hospital personnel, including the entire ER and OR teams, were called in to aid in the mass incident.

HGH EMS Rescue Clinical Coordinator Jared Oscarson also worked through the night coordinating transport of three patients to Reno via fixed wing aircraft from Tonopah and Las Vegas after weather conditions derailed the possibility of utilizing helicopter flight.

"This was the most appropriate resource considering the weather, available resources and transport times," said Oscarson, noting that fixed wings can make it to Reno in about 40 minutes.

During a debriefing session at about 10 p.m. Monday night crews, covered in inches of dust, shared their perspective on the evening over slices of pizza and plenty of water they hoped would ease their constricted throats.

"I've talked to people who said this county couldn't handle this," said HGH EMS Rescue Paramedic Intern David Ellis "but we are prepared. I was really proud that this little county could go after something like this."

At one time, teams were attempting to extricate four people out of vehicles, a process that in at least one case, took 3.5 hours.

"We got a lot of help from fire," said HGH EMS Rescue AEMT Brian Aitken. "There were a lot of ideas, trying to work as a group."

Other teams were making sure that all victims had been accounted for. HGH EMS Rescue Paramedic Richelle Rader said her team swept the area six times. "We checked and rechecked both directions until we ran out of traffic to check."

Whittaker said the magnitude of the incident knocked everyone initially. "We had no idea it was as big as it was," he said.

But he praised responding agencies generously. "The NHP, the SO, fire, everyone was so great," he said. "We got there and we just got to work."

He added, "This could have gone a lot worse if everyone had not coordinated like we did."

City of Winnemucca fireman Andrew Hillyer told EMS crews, "It makes us appreciate all the professional people we have. All you guys do a great job."

Winnemucca Fire Chief Alan Olsen agreed. "It never ceases to amaze me how you handle these things professionally. We appreciate the chance to work together."

He continued, "You stuck with it. You did what you were supposed to do. It was amazing; you guys are top notch."

Olsen added, "Every opportunity that we have to go out with you guys, if we can be of help you, we will. That's what we call public safety."