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On The Job: Rural Oregon Bus Crash MCI

Author: John Shafer,Umatilla County S O

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-04-19
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Even in rural Northeast Oregon we are not immune to multiple casualty incidents (MCI).    When something major occurs, we have to pool our resources together with our neighbors and get the job done.  

As is the case with every 9-1-1 center in the nation, when the Umatilla County 9-1-1 center is dealing with a MCI, the rest of the county still calls in their emergencies and non-emergencies as well.  During this MCI we were dealing burglaries, other routine medical calls, and the types of calls a busy 9-1-1 center deals with on a daily basis.  Our staffing levels for that day were three dispatchers on duty.  We called in another dispatcher to help out as well. 

On the morning of December 30, 2012, at 10:07hrs, our 9-1-1 dispatch center erupted with a flurry of activity that won’t soon be forgotten.   In the span of 20 minutes we received twelve 9-1-1 calls, for this one incident. Twelve calls for an incident of this magnitude may not sound like a lot, but most of those callers only spoke Korean.   With the use of Language Line we were able to obtain the necessary information to get the first responders rolling.   All of our callers told a similar story, a bus with about 50 people aboard had just gone over a 200 foot drop.  Of the 47 people on board, all were transported by ambulance, except, tragically, the nine people who lost their lives at the bottom of a deep ravine.

Mi-Joo Travel and Tour is a tour bus company operating out of Vancouver, British Columbia.  Mi-Joo had two buses traveling together from Las Vegas, Nevada back to Vancouver.  One of the buses lost control and ended up going down a 200 foot embankment on Interstate 84 near Mile Post 226 westbound.  This embankment was not a shallow one and this was an extremely steep drop.  The slope was covered with ice and snow making it hard to extricate the injured from the bus.

Interstate 84 runs across our state from East to West and running just outside of Pendleton, Oregon is one of the most dangerous passes in the nation.  It is known locally as Cabbage Hill.  It is often plagued with hazardous conditions during the winter months.  The bus crash happened on top of this very pass. 

Usually on a motor vehicle crash on Top of Cabbage Hill, the Umatilla Tribal Ambulance will respond and transport if necessary.  However, on December 30th, we had 16 different ambulances transporting patients off of the mountain, four of which are based in neighboring Union and Morrow Counties and, in one case, from Washington State.  The rest of the ambulances came out of Umatilla County.  We had two separate air ambulance companies, Lifeflight, and Med Star, flying patients out to hospitals that were more equipped to handle the severe traumas.  Three fixed wing and two rotor aircraft were on standby or utilized for transportation of the injured.  We had a total of 10 dispatch centers involved in the incident.  Six of those are Primary Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). 

Originally, Lt. Greg Sherman with the Oregon State Police (OSP) requested I-84 be closed down at Mile Post 229 westbound to the 216 westbound.  This was later changed to close traffic down westbound as far away as Baker City Mile Post 304.  The freeway was closed for approximately 75 miles.  The interstate was opened back up at 16:00hrs.  Traffic was diverted for a total of six hours during this one incident.  OSP called in troopers as far away as Salem, Bend, La Grande, and Baker City to assist with this incident. Umatilla County’s Emergency Manager activated Umatilla County’s Emergency Operations Center. 

A total of 10 hospitals received patients from this incident.  Four in Washington State, one in Boise Idaho, and the rest here in Oregon, including hospitals in Pendleton, Hermiston, La Grande, and two in Portland.  At the hospital in Pendleton, the Pendleton Police Department was directing traffic for the incoming ambulances.

This incident occurred in a remote area.  Some of the difficulties we encountered, besides getting all patients transported with limited resources, were communications.  Cell phones were of no use due to the terrain and lack of available cell towers.  The Incident Commander had good communications with dispatch, but not with the units down the hill at the bus site itself.  The IC would send a runner down to the bus to relay orders. 

Safety was a challenge due to the difficult terrain.  The terrain made it quite a challenge to remove patients from the damaged bus, and transporting them to the staging area for the ambulances. Umatilla County and neighboring Union County Search and Rescue teams assisted in bringing patients up the 200 foot embankment to the staging area for the ambulances.

Patients were triaged by Umatilla Tribal Ambulance personnel outside the bus.  After the arrival of Pendleton Fire and Ambulances, Firefighter/Paramedic Mark Lewis entered the bus where he triaged, treated, and removed patients with the assistance from OSP Troopers Mike Mayer, Rick Madsen, and Aaron Dietz, and Pilot Rock Fire Department Deputy Chief Brian Hemphill.  Patients were then transported on backboards by firefighters from Stanfield Fire, Helix Fire, East Umatilla Rural Fire District, Pendleton Fire and Ambulance, Pilot Rock Fire District, Tribal Fire, and Walla Walla Fire District 4 to the triage/transport area set up on the closed freeway.  Patients had to be placed on a backboard and hoisted up the embankment by rope to the transport area.  This was done by the search and rescue agencies on the ground.

Until the bus was removed and the manifest list was translated into English, there was no clear number of how many persons were on the bus.  Another factor was that, when the bus was in Boise along with the second bus traveling with them, some of the passengers traded buses without changing the manifest.  Also, when a group of passengers was noted on the manifest, they were listed as “John Doe, and 3 others.”  To further complicate the matter, when the other bus arrived at its destination, no count was made as to who exactly was on that bus.

When we deal with a mass casualty incident in northeast Oregon, we do not have the resources larger agencies have.  What we have is a strong dependency on each other and our neighbors.  It does not matter if you are a fire department, police department, ambulance, or a PSAP.  When something major occurs in a rural area, our relationships with our neighboring agencies are what help us and the public the most.  When you go over a two hundred foot drop, you do not care what the patch on the shoulder of the person helping you says, you are just glad someone is there to help.

John Shafer is a Communications Sergeant with Oregon's Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.  Special thanks to Associate Editor Dave Larton.

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