Lois Henry

Saturday, Feb 18 2012 10:30 PM

It's time for outside review of the logger rescue attempt

By Lois Henry

We need an outside agency to investigate the attempted rescue of logger Bill Bennett, who died Sept. 23, 2011 in the mountains south of Tehachapi after being hit by a falling tree.

I've detailed the accident and its aftermath in previous columns, including what I felt was an inadequate report on the incident by County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Director Ross Elliott.

The Board of Supervisors met in closed session on this issue Tuesday and I was told by Supervisor Mike Maggard that "a review process has begun and we look forward to any constructive improvements."

He wouldn't tell me anything else, such as who's doing the review, when will the review be done and what exactly is being reviewed.

Well, after what happened Friday, I can say with certainty that unless this is looked at by independent eyes, another in-county review won't be good enough.

And not only should the Bennett rescue be thoroughly reviewed by an outsider, so should the county fire and sheriff's department helicopter hoist programs, Hall Ambulance's conduct and whether there's been adequate oversight of all those agencies by Kern's EMS.

It's well past time to take the emotion and ego out of these vitally important functions and make sure they're functioning.

When the 911 call went out on this accident, Kern County Fire Department Captain Jason Nava got to what essentially became a staging area first with Hall's crew right behind him.

As Nava was hiking the half mile to Bennett, the Sheriff's Air 5 helicopter arrived.

Unbeknownst to the other rescuers, the Hall paramedic turned back after only a few minutes saying the hike was too hard. He also refused to ride up on a bulldozer, citing company policy about riding in non-Hall vehicles.

Meanwhile, Air 5 broke hover and circled numerous times. It took three attempts for them to drop in a deputy, then two more tries to get medical gear on the ground. It was nearly an hour before they got Bennett out.

Bennett's injuries were severe and perhaps he wouldn't have made it if all had gone smoothly. But it did not go smoothly.

So, back to Friday.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood called the "Californian Radio" show (KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m.) and read me the riot act for questioning whether things had gone as well as they could have on the Bennett rescue.

Youngblood called my stories "crap."

He felt my reporting was substandard, that I was biased, pointing fingers and unduly disparaging the sheriff department's helicopter hoist program. (Hear it for yourself by listening to the podcast at http://www.bakersfield.com/CalifornianRadio/x2055049065/Californian-Radio-Feb-17-2012 )

He was particularly incensed that I quoted from Nava's report, which chronicled Air 5's difficulties and asserted that the sheriff's deputy on the ground "was not proficient in CPR and the use of his medical equipment."

Youngblood adamantly defended his deputy's knowledge and application of CPR, saying he worked on Bennett for more than 30 minutes.

Yet, in a letter to Hollie Bennett, Bennett's widow, Youngblood stated that Air 5 personnel were just giving Bennett a ride.

"...Our department's role was simply transporting your husband from the accident scene to medical aid," the letter states.

It also has been reported, sources tell me, that when Air 5 flew into Tehachapi airport, his rescuer was using only one arm to give chest compressions to Bennett, who was secured in a basket outside the helicopter. And Bennett had not been fitted with a ventilation device, these witnesses said.

Though Youngblood accused me of stirring things up based on one person's (Nava's) allegations, I never spoke with Nava.

I did, however, read his and other reports, which led to my questions.

I understand Youngblood's urge to defend his people. They're highly trained professionals who tried their best under difficult circumstances. This was hard on everyone.

But Nava is also a highly trained professional who has far more hands-on experience at medical rescues. If he reports a problem, the best response would be to redouble training efforts.

The solution is not to throw Nava under the bus.

Nava was the first responder to reach Bennett's side and the incident commander. His observations are crucial.

Youngblood noted that there had been a post-rescue debriefing. He said on the radio Friday that no one had brought up any performance issues. He said that the first he'd heard of Nava's concerns was when he read it in the newspaper.

OK, a few things.

One, if some of these concerns weren't aired in the post-rescue debriefing, that shows a serious lack of honest communication between the departments.

Two, why didn't EMS Director Elliott bring up Nava's report during his four-month-long investigation of this incident?

Three, John Hayes, Bennett's brother-in-law, filed a complaint with the sheriff on Oct. 11 about Air 5's response. I can't believe Nava's report wouldn't have come up in the sheriff's department's own investigation of that complaint.

(As an aside, Hayes heard only Saturday, in a letter dated Friday, that his complaint had been handled. It followed an Oct. 21 letter saying his complaint had been assigned to Internal Affairs.)

Now, lets go back to Elliott's investigation.

Elliott lays out an important timeline that turned out to be wrong.

He said Bennett was working alone when the accident happened and it took nearly an hour for co-workers to find him and then call 911.

Not true.

I spoke with logging company owner Jess Witten, who said Bennett was working with a partner. The co-worker saw him get hit, cleared the tree off him and then ran down the hill to Witten, who made the call.

"It was maybe 15 minutes from when he got hit to when I called 911," Witten said. "Maybe a little longer but not much."

Certainly not an hour.

Medical people will tell you that first hour is critical and can be the difference between life and death. Witten's timeline means Bennett possibly had a better shot at survival than originally thought.

In fact, when Witten got back up the hill to Bennett, he had moved under his own power several yards down the hill. He was sitting up, talking and was lucid.

"We thought he had a chance, anyway," Witten said.

I asked if he'd spoken with EMS Director Elliott about the time issue. Elliott did call Witten once and Witten made two return calls but only got voice mail. He left messages but never heard back from Elliott.

Witten, a longtime logger, is a man of few words. Little seems to ruffle him.

"I didn't think the situation was good at all," he said of the rescue attempt. "I couldn't figure out what took 'em so long to get Bill in the (helicopter) hoist."

It was Witten who told county fire dispatchers, when he first called, that they would need a helicopter to get Bennett out. He's rethought that over the months since.

"If they couldn't do it, I wish they'da just told us. We coulda drug him down the hill or figured something else out," he said. "Seems like we really missed a chance."

Another error in Elliott's report could just be a misunderstanding of terminology but Elliott uses it to excuse the Hall paramedic's decision to sit in his ambulance rather than hike up the hill with his medical supplies. Which is inexcusable to me under any terminology.

Elliott says in several places in his report that the terrain was very rugged with slopes estimated at 45 degrees. That's steep.

Too steep, as it turns out, for ground-based logging equipment to operate.

The forester who wrote the timber management plan for this harvest, Jeff Gletne with Sierra Forest Products, told me the terrain in that area varies but is between a 45 percent to 60 percent grade -- not degree.

For comparison purposes, a 45 percent grade is only a 24 degree slope and even a 60 percent grade is only, at most, 30 degrees.

I asked Gletne if anyone had spoken with him or anyone at Sierra Forest Products and he said no.

"We were kind of surprised no one called," he said.

I'd like to say I'm surprised as well.

But from beginning to end, the prevailing attitude about this rescue and the questions it has raised has been the less said the better.

Sorry, guys, that's not gonna happen.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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