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EARTHQUAKE: THE LONG ROAD BACK : While Ground Shook, Sheriff's Copter Was Flying Bread : Response: The emergency unit's availability was overlooked, officials say. Crew members are stunned and disappointed.

January 23, 1994|DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just hours after the quake hit, the elite helicopter rescue squad of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was in position--whirring 500 feet above the devastated San Fernando Valley.

But, in the chaos, the chopper and its crew of trained paramedics were not called upon to treat or airlift any of the thousands of earthquake victims--not even the 21 premature babies stranded at a damaged Northridge hospital. After the crew and another sheriff's helicopter ferried deputies to a nearby jail in Castaic, the choppers were assigned to deliver hundreds of loaves of fresh-baked bread to the Downtown men's jail.

In the end, the crew members, who make their living rescuing people from steep slopes and icy waters, were incredulous that they had not been sent to help during a calamity of such scope.

"If they can think about us to transfer bread, they ought to think about us to save lives," said Lt. James A. Di Giovanna of the Sheriff's Aero Bureau.

Dr. Jack Sills, chief of neonatology at UC Irvine Medical Center, said there was an acute need for helicopters Monday and that delays left medical personnel frustrated. He said it took him 6 1/2 hours to arrange for what turned out to be Marine Corps helicopters to deliver two of the premature babies in Northridge to his hospital in Orange County.

"You have to get the experts to where the problem is as quickly as possible, and the best way to do it is by air," Sills said.

"Normally, when we get a transfer call, we're there to pick up the baby within 30 minutes. But because of the confusion, it took hours this time," he said.

Sills said he had no idea that the Sheriff's Department had an emergency response helicopter available Monday that could have been used to airlift the babies.

"If the medical community had known," he said, "then we could have pushed the right buttons."

Why was the sheriff's helicopter sent to deliver bread for prisoners instead of evacuating premature babies or aiding earthquake victims?

According to interviews with sheriff's officials and medical personnel, the helicopter unit was overlooked by its own department and its availability was unknown to those who needed help in the chaotic hours after the quake.

Sheriff's Capt. Tom Sams, who oversees the helicopter units, said the crew would have aided earthquake victims--but no requests for such help came to the department's Emergency Operations Center.

During the same hours Monday, the Marine helicopters from El Toro flew the premature babies and a Channel 2 chopper pilot transported a burn victim. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses were deployed to drive dozens of military veterans, some with catheters still in place, from a quake-stricken hospital in the San Fernando Valley to veterans' facilities as far away as San Bernardino.

Sams said sheriff's officials did not learn of the babies' plight until Tuesday, after all 21 had been taken to UC Irvine and two other hospitals. "We became aware of it the next day, and we're concerned," Sams said, "because we could have made arrangements and flown that mission."

As for the bread run, Sams noted that both sheriff's helicopters had flown to the Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic late Monday morning to deliver department medical personnel because of another outbreak of racial violence there.

Sams said the copters were then ordered to load and deliver the bread, baked by prisoners at Castaic, because officials wanted to make sure that sandwiches could be served at the Downtown jail, where kitchen steam tables were out of order "and there was no way to provide hot meals."

"If there's a concern here that delivering bread was a higher priority than helping babies, that certainly was not the case," he said.

Sams and members of the emergency response unit noted that over the past week they also have transported deputies to a substation in Santa Clarita, an area difficult to reach because of road failures.

Still, members of the emergency response unit said they remain perplexed and deeply disappointed that when the community needed them most, they were not called on to help. They see Monday's events as part of a reduction of the unit that has included a cutback to four-day-a-week operations. In 1990, an official said, the unit logged 14,000 hours in the air; in 1993, it flew 8,500 hours.

"We have a rescue operation that just seems to get lost through the cracks," said Sheriff's Sgt. Harry Jones, crew chief of the big Sikorsky helicopter and its team, known as Air 5. "Our department is not as proactive in the rescue business as they really should be. We're not utilized to our fullest capacity. This (earthquake) is a perfect example of what happens."

Jones, a 25-year veteran of the helicopter squad who vividly remembers "running bodies in and out" of the crumpled Olive View Hospital after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, said that Monday's experience was entirely different.

"We're cranked up, we're having an earthquake, we've got one of the best rescue helicopters around--and we're transporting bread," he said.

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