May 16, 2005- For top officials from the V.I. National Guard, a Monday evening press conference at the Roy L. Schneider Hospital came at the end of a long day. At the end of that day they joined Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and the hospital staff to report their mission accomplished.
As word seeped back to the territory Sunday night that a contingent of St. Thomas guardsmen, coming home from a training session, were in distress after the plane they were flying in hit an unexpected air pocket, the mission was clear: find out what had happened, get to the scene, render aid and bring the troops back home. Adjutant Gen. Eddy Charles told reporters his emergency team had done just that.
And they did it in roughly 24 hours.
"I must say to Virgin Islanders that your National Guard, with its joint task force, is very well prepared and very well prepared to respond; to respond to your emergencies as well as our own emergencies," he said at the press conference.
As he spoke, more than three-dozen guardsmen and women were undergoing treatment and evaluation at the Schneider Regional Medical Center. They were brought back to the territory on board a C-130 transport plane, dispatched to the island of Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos. That's where the KC-135 cargo plane they traveled on was forced to land after it plunged an estimated 400 feet in three to four seconds. That group also included four people, seriously wounded when the sudden shift in altitude turned them into projectiles inside the plane they were riding.
At first the four were supposed to be taken to a military hospital in Georgia, but officials later decided their best bet was to get treatment back at the Schneider Regional. Four other injured guardsmen were airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for treatment of major injuries, including head, neck and spinal damage.
A contingent of the National Guard joint task force, led by Battalion Commander Beresford Edwards, left St. Croix at first light for the site where the stricken plane had landed. They were joined by retired army Lt. Gen. Samuel Ebbesen, who played an advisory role in support of medical personnel, executive support staff and a military police commander.
"Training is dangerous. This is an example of how dangerous training can be," Ebbesen said. But he also commended the response of guard commanders and the concern shown by all involved, including National Guard Commander-In-Chief Turnbull.
"I, like you, don't like to see one solider injured, whether it's in combat or certainly in a training environment. Every one of the toughest decisions a commander or leader has is when he is faced with an injury or somebody's getting hurt. And I assure you, what I saw today shows we have a caring leadership in the territory," he said.
Responders said they also found examples of caring and self-sacrifice in the field, as many guardsmen pointed to the valor of medical personnel traveling with the training group who began to treat the injured even though in some cases they were hurt themselves.
Turnbull in his remarks commended the actions of one of the nurses on board who began emergency treatment, notified National Guard officials in the Virgin Islands and gave medical responders in Providenciales an assessment of the injuries on board the KC-135.
"That nurse, from all the accounts I received from the soldiers, did a magnificent job. She is sort of a heroine on that plane and I want to thank her for her special, courageous start. She was also injured but despite her injuries she continued to attend to the other soldiers," the governor said.
At the time of the press conference that nurse, 2nd Lt. Arnelle Lewis, was undergoing treatment at Schneider Hospital. Sgt. 1st Class Trevor Joseph, Staff Sgt. Calvin Jackson, and Staff Sgt. Joan Gutliffe were also met by emergency medical technicians who met the C-130 as it arrived at the Cyril E. King Airport Monday afternoon. They were evaluated at the airport then taken by ambulance to Schneider Hospital.
Sgt. 1st Class Henry Warner, Staff Sgt. Clifford W. Allen, Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Farrell and Sgt. Laurel Maloon-Francis were taken to Miami for emergency treatment. Charles, addressing families of the injured servicemen, said they were getting the best medical treatment possible.
"I'm glad that the folks who had to be referred to remain in the mainland are at good facilities, civilian facilities because those were the closest and because of the seriousness of the injuries, risking flying them back home was not in their best interest. We want to convey to their families they are in good hands and we're going to give them the best of help," Charles said.
The remainder of the group was taken to the hospital's community health clinic, where Dr. Thelma Watson, Schneider Hospital medical director, said they were met by doctors and nurses who checked to see that whatever minor injuries they may have had.
Any that were found to be more seriously hurt would be sent to the emergency room for further evaluation, Dr. Watson said.
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