Their actions are befitting of the award, which recognizes firefighters around the world for their expert training, leadership, heroic actions and safe practices. It is the highest honor bestowed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and is cosponsored by the IAFC and the Motorola Solutions business of Motorola, Inc.
Mid-afternoon on August 1, 2009, with swirling winds, blowing rain and fog burying the craggy coast of western Kaua’i, Rescue 3 is notified of an overdue ultralight flight. A local pilot and student are last reported at 5,000 feet trying to fly through a hole in the clouds to Hanapepe Valley, a heavily-wooded area with a thick forest canopy. There is no GPS device or emergency beacon on board.
Combing the dense rainforest from an island helicopter for 45 minutes, Rescue 3 spots debris scattered along a ridge in a deep ravine. Rescue Specialists Roy Constantino and Francisco Garcia are short-hauled into a stream bed below the crash site, but the 80-degree slope and 30-knot winds force them to be pulled up and lowered through the forest canopy above the crash.
The winds and rain intensify as Constantino and Garcia work their way along the steep slope before finding two survivors trapped under the wrecked plane. Clinging to the hillside and losing traction in the slippery undergrowth, they reach the first man. He is badly injured, with broken legs and ribs. Constantino and Garcia secure him so he won’t slide into the rushing waters below, bind his legs to form a splint, pull him from the wreckage and place him in a rescue seat and harness so he can be extricated to a temporary landing site where Rescue Operator Kalani Abreu is standing by to administer aid.
Adding to the stress, another dispatch comes in. A hunter with a possible broken leg is stranded on a ridge 20 miles west. After assessing his reported condition and the deteriorating weather, Rescue 3 must remain and try to extricate the pilot first.
The terrain is so steep that they can’t pull the pilot up, but must lower him to the bottom of the ravine. Not only is his right ankle fractured and left leg broken, but he has suffered a severe head trauma and is semi-conscious and combative. As darkness descends, Constantino and Garcia stay by his side, splinting his legs together to alleviate the pain and covering him with leaves to shelter him from the cold and rain.
The helicopter returns repeatedly to extricate Constantino, Garcia and the injured pilot, but deteriorating conditions hamper any attempt. They must stay in the ravine until daybreak and an attempt to rescue the injured hunter must also be postponed.
Near dawn, the helicopter returns to the crash site, where blowing rain, low clouds and gusting winds thwart a rescue. Rather than wait for a lull, they head west to pick up the injured hunter and fly him to the hospital. He’s in good shape despite his overnight sojourn.
As the weather improves, Rescue 3 returns to the crash site. Once again their efforts are foiled and they leave to refuel. After adding a hundred-pound pigtail weight to the helicopter, they are finally able to extricate Constantino and the injured pilot in a litter with a long line.
This time, they must leave Garcia behind. The pilot is in critical condition as Constantino tends to him en route to the hospital. After dropping them off and refueling, the helicopter returns one last time to pull Garcia out of the ravine.
Fire Rescue 3 not only displayed remarkable resilience, resourcefulness and perseverance in extreme conditions, but they risked their own lives to save others. Miraculously, everyone rescued is alive today. In nominating them for the award, Chief Robert Westerman noted, “My crew may say it was all in a day’s work, but I will tell you that very few people can do this day’s work and live to tell about it.”