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New Mexico Flood Victims Look to Skies for Help

By Army Staff Sgt. Anna Doo
Special to American Forces Press Service

SANTA FE, N.M., July 31, 2008 – New Mexico Army National Guard aviators put their hoist training to the test not once, not twice, but 57 times July 27 after Tropical Depression Dolly caused flooding in the high desert environment of Ruidoso, N.M.

By the end of the mission, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crews had picked up more than 250 residents and vacationers. This feat set a state record for the number of victims rescued in two days.

“[The Black Hawk] kind of looked like Noah’s Ark in the back,” said Army Staff Sgt. Ian Weiger.

Army Capt. Daniel Purcell said the effort was a record-breaker. “There is no way in our aviation history in this state that we’ve saved or rescued that many people at once,” he said. “Certainly a record, as far as rescues go. We were just doing what we were trained to do.”

The July 27 helicopter crew consisted of pilots Purcell and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles Boehler, along with their flight crew, Weiger and Sgt. 1st Class Greg Holmes.

Hundreds of residents and vacationers were stranded due to the swift rise of the Rio Ruidoso, which runs through the town of Ruidoso, southeast of Albuquerque. The rushing river tore through 14 bridges, engulfed roadways and continued to create more rivers, all of which prevented people from escaping.

Crossing the river was impossible, as even the trees cut down by rescue workers to act as bridges were unsafe to use. The high waters completely encircled one campground, creating an island that was the only dry ground for the vacationers.

Before the campers had a chance to panic, the Black Hawks were hovering overhead and lowering a hoist and crew to help transport them to safety.

This mission was performed by using a jungle penetrator, which is a seat suspended from the helicopter by a sturdy cable. Crew members strapped in victims one at a time for the ride of their life from the ground up to the hovering aircraft. Crews were then able to lift them into the safety of the helicopter.

Some of the 57 people hoisted from the ground on July 27 were picked up well after sunset, but the helicopter crews are well versed in night operations with the jungle penetrator. They have performed extensive training using night-vision goggles to see in the dark.

The focus, Purcell said, “was to get the elderly, women and children out first and then come back for the rest.”

Over the next three days, crews would continue to airlift stranded residents and vacationers in addition to dropping water and food to those still on the ground.

(Army Staff Sgt. Anna Doo serves with the New Mexico National Guard.)

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