Boat explosion, plane crash led to Shaw’s official aid team

Phil Ekstrom recalls the beginning of the Shaw Aid Team, which started with neighbors pitching in and sending away those that needed more care by outing them on a ferry.

 In the very early days (that is before Janice and I were on the scene to observe) retired nurse Charlotte Lameroux provided most of the medical care on Shaw Island. When there was an emergency, folks pitched in as they could to help and to send people away on the ferry when they needed definitive care. When my wife Janice, another nurse, moved to the island, Charlotte greeted her warmly and did her best to turn her own role over to this welcome newcomer. Sometime later, nurse Roberta Crosby arrived and joined in.

 But there was still no organized way to handle serious injuries, a fact that was made very clear in the summer of 1992 by two fatal accidents, each of which also seriously injured a second person. Leaking propane fuel led to a boat explosion in Blind Bay, throwing two persons overboard and leaving one of them with a femur fracture. A third occupant died in the explosion and subsequent fire. An airplane crashed at the Shaw airstrip, killing the pilot outright and leaving his passenger with chemical burns from leaded aviation fuel that soaked into his clothes and remained in contact with his skin. In each case the community rallied around. The injured were rescued and sent off for care, but in neither case was the situation handled as well as it might have been. Our island needed an aid team, and islanders set about organizing one.

 At first, the only way to train as an EMT was to commute to one of the larger islands twice a week, attend a class which ran until too late to catch the last ferry for Shaw, stay overnight, return home the next morning, and do it all again until the 100-hour course was complete. Janice, our first team leader, did just that and qualified as an EMT. The rest of us were either unwilling or unable to, and instead trained up only to the level of First Responder. That was a course and certification established primarily for policemen and firefighters who would find themselves at the scene of an emergency for other reasons, but we could arrange to have that course taught on Shaw and could find enough people willing to take it. The founding team had eight members: Tim Nelson, Al Wilding, Malcolm Lea, Roberta and David Crosby, Janice and Phil Ekstrom.

 There was little money for equipment, so we scrounged. The Crosbys donated an old passenger van for the team to use as its emergency vehicle, named Charlotte in honor of Charlotte Lameroux. We picked up an old plywood backboard from another aid team that was replacing it with a plastic one transparent to x-rays. And so it went; where possible, we made do with cast-offs.

 We stocked up our jump bags, put on our pagers, and began answering aid calls. Starting from scratch, we had no one with any field experience. Our two nurses and the physicians who sometimes stepped in to help us (Don Sutherland, Betty Gilson, and Phil Deane) were all trained for office and hospital medicine, not field medicine. All of them had done an emergency room rotation, but even the emergency room is more like the rest of the hospital than it is like an accident scene. So we were all in unfamiliar territory.

 Of course our teachers made sure that we had been taught what to look for, had practiced the techniques we should use and were familiar with the equipment we would need, but there is a big difference between doing a scenario in class, with an instructor standing there to correct your mistakes, and dealing with an accident scene where it is just you, your teammates, and the patient with no roof over your heads.

 Our first patients were met by an excited swarm of newly-minted First Responders, who felt like they were stumbling through their tasks, and probably were. But we rendered care, patched up some injuries, saved some lives, and found that we were welcomed and honored by the community. Slowly we learned from experience those things that are hard to learn in class, and slowly we grew into the calm, deliberate, and efficient team of today. Newcomers today get to work with old-timers and appear to have an easier time settling in. They certainly do so more quickly.

 Janice stepped down as team leader when she and I were out of the country for a year beginning in the summer of 2001. When we returned, a more advanced class had been arranged on Shaw and Helen Riggins was leading a team of EMTs.

 Our original passenger van and its successor, a purpose-built though still cast-off ambulance, served as they had to: nominally to transport us and our equipment to a scene but also in fact to transport patients from a scene to the helicopter or ferry when they needed more care than we could give them. There are some specific requirements to be met for such a vehicle and one of them was the presence of at least one EMT with the patient. Of course no one came around telling us to stop rendering care until we got all the details sorted out, but it was a relief when we could finally satisfy all the requirements and get our vehicle properly registered and licensed for its actual function.

 We have employed a succession of vehicles in this service, replacing one with the next when the older vehicle became impractical to use. The most dramatic of those occasions began one night when we were holding drill in the Community Building and had left the ambulance in the drive-through just outside the building’s front door. Its interior lights were on to enable us to quickly find things we would need during our scenarios, and the engine was running to keep the lights from draining the battery. As we were working inside the building, someone noticed a strange orange light coming in the front door. When we ran out to look, we saw flames coming from underneath the vehicle. (We learned later that an exhaust leak had ignited a sprayed-on cork-and-tar anti-corrosion coating.) We called out the firefighters and began to do what we could with a hand-held extinguisher, but it was fortunate that we had some of our equipment out and in use. By the time the fire was finally out, the ambulance and all of its remaining contents were ruined.

A picture of that burnt-out wreck posted to a fire and aid web site moved five other agencies to each offer us a surplus ambulance. We chose the one we liked best and were back in business within a week. When our delegation arrived to pick up the vehicle, the donors were interested to hear about life in a small-scale aid unit. On hearing the size of our yearly budget, the response was: “Our bandage budget is bigger than that! Here, let’s throw in some more stuff for them.”

But this has run past the early days. Someone else should take over telling the rest.

The Aid Team is raising money to purchase a new ambulance to replace the 1991 model. If you would like to donate to the fund, your donation can be sent to San Juan County FD #5, at P.O. Box 432, Shaw Island, WA 98286, with “ambulance” in the comment line. For more information, contact Deanna Shannon at 360-468-4560 or Helen Riggins at 360-298-0995.