Prior training in airport emergencies within the Rapid City Fire Department and beefed-up medical staffing at Rapid City Regional Hospital for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally helped crews meet the challenge Thursday night when a JetBlue airliner with injured passengers and crew members landed in Rapid City.
The plane made it down safely at Rapid City Regional Airport, and injuries were minor. But it was still a tension-packed emergency.
“It was really an act of nature, in that a pilot is flying a plane at an appropriate elevation, everything is, systems are good and everything is good, good for him, and all of a sudden he hits a pocket or air or something,” said Rapid City Fire Chief Mike Maltaverne.
Extreme turbulence injured 22 passengers and two crew members on the JetBlue flight from Boston to Sacramento. The pilot diverted the jet, with 145 passengers on board, to Rapid City. That happens periodically, said Rapid City Regional Airport Executive Director Patrick Dame.
“Being that we are in the center of the country it is a very good location for air carriers to be able to land here and get the services for passengers they need,” Dame said.
Maltaverne said pilots in commercial jets have access to systems showing airports and facilities they provide.
“This airport shows up on that pilots’ list of resources, that if they do have a medical or mechanical problems, this airport is equipped to handle those,” Maltaverne said.
The airport has a fire station at the location, and crew members there responded immediately Thursday evening after a 7:24 p.m. contact from a staffer in the control tower at Regional that a diverted jet was inbound and about 15 minutes out.
Medical units from two other fire stations responded, along with supervisory personnel. Although the initial report from the plane was that four people had been injured by the turbulence, as fire department medical personnel boarded the aircraft they determined more than a dozen needed treatment.
More personnel were requested from the Rapid City Fire Department and the Rapid Valley Volunteer Fire Department. Twenty nine people were sent to Regional, but only 24 needed treatment. Some adults accompanied children who had been injured.
Maltaverne said it was hectic, but crews were prepared to respond.
“It can be a little overwhelming,” he said. “But again we train for that, and countless, countless hours every year for this particular incident.”
A triage system identified those who needed treatment and prioritized according to their injuries. Those not injured were given beverages and food and eventually flew on to Sacramento in other planes.
At Rapid City Regional Hospital, preparations made weeks and months in advance for this week’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally helped hospital staff deal with the emergency influx.
“We staff up many of our departments in anticipation of higher volume, and preparing for the unexpected,” said hospital President Mick Gibbs. “And last night we got the unexpected.”
But they were ready to respond, said Tasha Frisinger, director of clinical coordination and staffing.
“Before the bus of passengers even got here, we had at least 20 people waiting with wheelchairs ,20 apiece, waiting for our, uh, guests, essentially to come here and get treated,” she said.
All were treated and released.
Maltaverne said cooperation between all the emergency personnel, including the Rapid City Police, and airport staff made the response so effective.
“I can’t emphasize enough that we were prepared for this incident,” he said. “It highlights the interagency cooperation. Great job by all the staff. And again, the best positive outcome was there were no significant injuries and all were treated and released.”