The massive storm that brought down the landslide in Haines on December 2 had not abated, when an Air Station Sitka helicopter launched en route to search for victims. The specialized equipment on the helicopter — and the people flying it — were both put to the test during the mission.
Matt Breckel was the commander of the back-up crew on the day of the storm, but the Air Station’s primary crew had already flown two medevac missions in other parts of the region, when the call came in shortly after 2 p.m. that disaster had struck in Haines.
Despite the forecast of severe turbulence, Cmdr. Breckel and his crew launched in the fading daylight, to perform the kind of work that the Coast Guard specializes in.
Breckel – Our capabilities on the helicopter that they were looking for were our forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR) so we were looking for the heat signatures of potentially anyone in the slide area. We came into a hover there — we had a 40-knot headwind to do that — and we searched that area for a good hour or so. And then did shoreline searches out in the water. There were quite a few logs floating in the area that were a danger to the surface boats. And in those logs you could see pieces of houses — not big ones — we saw a mattress, and pieces of wood mixed in with that.
After this initial shoreline search, Breckel’s crew started a search pattern over the water. But they ran into difficulty right away.
Breckel – We only got a few minutes into that before the weather really started coming down on us. We had heavy rain. We’re operating in a mile-wide channel there and we had less than a half-mile visibility, so we couldn’t even see the other side. Trying to make turns in 40-knot winds. So pretty challenging at that point and so we secured from the search that night due to the risk of operating in that area.
Even with night-vision goggles, Breckel says, the pilots could not see the horizon.
They flew to Juneau for the night, and returned the next morning with two members of the Tlingit & Haida Emergency Operations Command, who they dropped off at the Haines airport. Then it was back to flying the search pattern.
KCAW – And this was the first good look you had at the slide in daylight, on Thursday?
Breckel – So we probably had 20-minutes of dwindling daylight on Wednesday, yeah, but first to get a really good look at the slide, that was our first good chance.
KCAW – What’s your assessment of the slide? It looks pretty big from the pictures.
Breckel – I’m used to seeing some of the smaller slides around the Sitka area, and that is by far the biggest slide I’ve ever seen. I put it at 600-feet wide at the bottom and it went up to an elevation of 500 or 600 feet. So there was a lot of land that came down, and a couple houses just really close: There was one house, if you look at that picture (taken from the helicopter) up on the right, the one with the green roof, you can see the mud pushed up right on that house. It’s lucky that more houses weren’t taken down by that.”
Breckel is confident that had anyone been alive in the water, the helicopter’s infrared camera would have detected them. The helicopter returned to Air Station Sitka Thursday evening, after having spent nine hours airborne in the search effort in Haines.