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Sailors Save Iraqi's Life in Oil Platform Fire

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Cassandra Thompson, USN
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2006 – The quick response of two USS Port Royal crew members saved the life of an Iraqi contract worker overcome by smoke inhalation while fighting a fire here May 26.

As part of Commander, Task Group 158.1 emergency response team, Chief Petty Officer Doreen Lehner and Petty Officer 3rd Class Heather Watts were the only medical personnel on the scene when an Iraqi Southern Oil Company worker collapsed due to smoke inhalation.

Injuries from smoke inhalation and the toxic by-products of combustion in fires account for 75 percent of fire-related deaths in the U.S. Typically, the victim's lungs fill up with mucus and fluid, making it difficult to breathe.

Oxygen deficiency leads to further complications, including tissue hypoxia (stiffening of the extremities) and, finally, loss of consciousness.

Lehner and Watts, hospital corpsmen, were on Port Royal's rigid-hull inflatable boat when Cmdr. Eric Phipps, CTG 158.1 deputy commander, received word that the Iraqi had collapsed on the north side of the platform. He immediately dispatched the two corpsmen to the scene.

"He was breathing, but struggling, when we got there," Lehner said. "Then he slipped out of consciousness. He had a very weak pulse, and he was posturing (the stiffening of the extremities associated with hypoxia). I knew we needed to give him an IV (intravenous feed)."

Lehner and Watts had to overcome the language barrier between them and the victim's co-workers to convince them he needed an IV.

"I knew he was probably dehydrated, but when I gave him the IV, he stopped breathing for 2 to 3 minutes," Lehner said. She then attempted to insert a breathing tube down his throat.

"He was unconsciously fighting the tube, but he hadn't breathed in about two minutes," she said. "I knew we were losing him."

"His jaw was clenched tight and his tongue was blocking his airway," said Watts, a native of Pharr, Texas. "It was pretty scary. I was just trying to stay focused and grab everything Chief (Lehner) was asking for. His friends were on either side of him helping us, rubbing his arms and legs to help with circulation, and praying and encouraging him to breathe."

Lehner said she was afraid to move the Iraqi in his weakened condition, even though the platform was being evacuated. Phipps, who was torn between concern for the safety of his sailors and the well-being of the victim, stayed with Lehner and Watts throughout the ordeal.

"There was still a certain amount of risk on the platform, but it was obvious that he was badly injured," Phipps said. "We had to make the decision to do whatever we could to help him and the other terminal workers."

Lehner said that in desperation she tried to insert the oral airway again. This time, it provoked his gag reflex and stimulated him to gasp for air.

"It was like he came back to life," she said. "He quickly sat up and he gasped for air, then started coughing, and coughed out a lot of that fluid. I cleared his airway, got all the fluid out and utilized the bag-valve-mask to provide rescue breathing. Then we hurried him out of there."

The Iraqi was by boat to nearby amphibious transport dock USS Ogden. He stopped breathing three times before they got to their destination and had to have the oral airway reinserted to prompt his reflexes again.

The team then medical evacuated him via helicopter to amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu, which has a higher-echelon medical facility. He is now ashore in Basra and is in good condition.

"This is the first time that I've saved somebody's life," Watts said. "And it's a reward in itself, like you're walking on air. It's amazing."

Port Royal, part of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, is deployed in support of maritime security operations in the North Arabian Gulf, establishing conditions for security and stability in the region.

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Related Sites:
U.S. Naval Forces Central Command

Related Articles:
Iraqi Oil Terminal Fire Burns Itself Out



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