Shoreline Fire hosts ceremony for Probationary Firefighter being given Navy award for heroism

Thursday, April 28, 2022

l-r Shoreline Deputy Fire Chief Mark Foster, Captain Eric Hanks Base Commander for NAS Whidbey Island, honoree Chris Harris, Commander James Udall NAS Whidbey Whidbey Island, Shoreline Fire Deputy Chief of Support Services Steve Taylor. Photo by Steven H. Robinson

On Tuesday, April 26, 2022, at Shoreline Fire Headquarters, the Navy presented Probationary Firefighter Chris Harris with the Navy and Marine Corps medal for heroism for his actions to rescue an injured hiker as part of a helicopter crew out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Search and Rescue.

Captain Eric Hanks, Base Commander for NAS Whidbey Island, read the citation for Chris Harris (center). Commander James Udall NAS Whidbey Whidbey Island was part of the mission. Photo by Steven H. Robinson

The story is a dramatic one.

On the evening of 21 September, 2019, Petty Officer AWS2 Christopher Harris and the crew of RESCUE 58, an MH-608 helicopter permanently assigned to the Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island Search and Rescue (SAR) Detachment, responded to an urgent request from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) on behalf of the Jefferson County Sheriff ‘s Office for the search and rescue of a critically injured and unresponsive 33 year old male who suffered a fall on Lake Constance trail. 

Based on the inaccessible location of the climber, environmental factors, and advanced medical care needed, no other air assets were available that could affect the rescue. 

AWS2 Harris and the crew of RESCUE 58 displayed an unmatched ability to overcome adverse and dangerous conditions using excellent crew resource management and superior technical skills both in and out of the helicopter to save the life of a critically injured and unresponsive hiker. 

RESCUE 58 arrived on scene at approximately 1920 (7:20 PM), immediately began a search pattern, and established radio communications with an Olympic Mountain Rescue ground team who were beginning to organize their search at the start of the trail-head. 

RESCUE 58 flew under the cloud layer at an altitude of approximately 3,000 feet, searched as close to the datum as possible without posing unnecessary risk to themselves. With the clouds obscuring the datum, RESCUE 58’s crew decided to fly out of the valley and check the conditions on top of the cloud deck.  The cloud layer ascended to roughly 4,800 feet and remained stagnant on top of the survivor’s location. 

With darkness quickly approaching, the crew determined the best course of action would be to deploy AWS2 Harris and the Search and Rescue Medical Technician (SMT) into the canyon north of Lake Constance in order to hike down to the patient’s location. 

AWS2 Harris and the SMT gathered personal survival gear, rescue equipment, and medical kits before being deployed via 75-foot rappel to a location approximately 1,300 yards above the datum.

Once on deck, Petty Officer Harris led the SMT in safely navigating a 1,300 yard traversing descent through what the Washington Trails Association classifies as a “Class 2 and class 3 scramble” (highly advanced and dangerous hiking) in the darkness, using flashlights and a Garmin InReach GPS device. 

Captain Eric Hanks awards the medal to Harris. This is the highest medal given by the Navy and Marine Corps for heroism in a non-combat life saving operation.
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

This trail required continuous attention and careful hand work in areas where a mistake could prove fatal. AWS2 Harris initiated communications with the Jefferson County’s ground SAR team, who had already begun climbing the trail from the base of the mountain. Their ground team relayed updated information regarding a white notepad that was left on a log by a Good Samaritan which indicated the location of the patient and the most current set of vitals. 

After hiking approximately 25 minutes in the dark, AWS2 Harris found the noted pad and subsequently spotted the survivor. It was at that time that AWS2 Harris and SMT stripped away all the heavy gear they were carrying and began another technical cliff descent 25 feet down to the critical patient.

AWS2 Harris immediately assisted the SMT with the full assessment of the approximately 290 pound patient using lifesaving interventions to include securing airway, recording vital signs, and for the next hour and ten minutes, used personal body heat with the aid of a rescue blanket to help maintain the condition of the unresponsive patient. 

While waiting for RESCUE 58 to return from refueling operations. AWS2 Harris assisted the SMT in preparing the patient in the rescue hoisting vest and discussed with the SMT possible recovery methods. 

The critical patient was situated at the base of a tree with an extremely thick canopy directly overhead, making a standard hoist from directly above their location impossible. Due to the patient’s weight and the steep treacherous terrain, the patient could not be safely moved to a more suitable hoisting location.

RESCUE 58 arrived back on scene at approximately 2215 (10:15 PM), AWS2 Harris briefed the extraction plan to RESCUE 58 and the SMT communicated the urgency, viz that the patient required an expedited transport to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. 

Chris Harris with his mother and sister
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

As RESCUE 58 descended as far as possible onto the canopy and constrained on all sides by trees, the Rescue Crewchief could not direct the aircraft further to the right in order to place the rescue hook at AWS2’s position. 

AWS2 determined that the hoist would have to lowered through a small opening in the trees yards from the patient’s location near a fallen tree and walked back to the SMT and patient, while simultaneously maneuvering the hoist cable through dense tree foliage. 

The only place where the rescue Crewchief was able to place the rescue hook was on a fallen log that extended 15 feet over a cliff edge. 

At risk to his own life, AWS2 Harris utilized his extensive mountaineering skills to strategically utilize the downed tree to get in contact with rescue hook. Once he recovered the rescue hook, he walked back down the fallen tree to where the SMT and patient were located. 

The SMT expeditiously hooked himself and the patient up and completed his final checks for the hoist extraction. The Crewchief received the hoisting signal from the SMT, began to put tension on the hoist while AWS2 Harris found the small opening in the tree canopy, aligned the SMT and patient with it, and began readying himself for extraction.

The medal, an account of the rescue, and the certification of the award "from the President of the United States" Photo by Steven R. Robinson

Once inside the aircraft, AWS2 Harris assisted with reassessment, placed the patient on the vital sign monitor, and aided in establishing intraosseous access in the humeral head for administration of warm fluid to combat hypothermia during the short transit to the Level 1 trauma center. Once on deck at Harborview Medical Center, AWS2 Harris departed the aircraft with the SMT and patient to perform turnover.

Despite extremely dangerous terrain and the critical nature of the patient’s injuries, Petty Officer Harris’ mountaineering abilities; adept decision making skills, and courage to adapt to the challenges of the environment proved vital in expeditiously extracting the survivor. 

Petty Officer Harris' superb professionalism, outstanding perseverance, and loyal dedication to duty reflected great credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

4-28-22 Corrected names in photo caption at head of story


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