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24 May 2013

HTC-trained Hovercraft Pilots on the Scene at Bridge Collapse in Washington State

When a bridge on Interstate 5 just north of Seattle, Wash. collapsed in the spring of 2013, the scene was like something out of a Michael Bay film: crumbled concrete and snapped reinforcement beams pouring into the river below, snapped steel trusses jutting out in all directions; mangled cars suspended in a tangle of metal and concrete; terrified motorists clinging to the debris, shivering as rescuers carefully extract them from the wreckage.

Not something you often see outside of a movie set.

Two Neoteric Hovertreks survey the scene of the bridge collapse on the Skagit River near Seattle, Wash. [Photo credit: AP photo/Seattle Times/Rick Lund)
The millions of viewers who caught the story, which was covered around the globe and touched off a national conversation about the state of the U.S. infrastructure, also got a glimpse of something else you don’t see every day: two fire-engine-red Neoteric rescue hovercraft — including one operated by HTC graduate Trent Nunemaker — cruising through the melee, going where no other vehicle could travel to scour the wreckage for signs of life.

Nunemaker navigates through debris-filled waters to search for victims. [Photo credit: AP photo/Seattle Times/Rick Lund)

He might not command Bruce Willis’s salary, but for Trent Nunemaker — President of Snohomish County Fire District 19, Team Coordinator for the Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team and certified pilot of District 19’s Hovercraft 94— the dramatic scene on May 23 was just another day on the job. And hovercraft, something many people still imagine to be the stuff of futuristic fiction, are the best tool he’s found to save time, save lives, and keep rescue workers safely above the danger rather than in it.

“There was a lot of debris in the water — concrete and steel. Boats weren’t able to get into the wreckage, but we were able to hover back and forth through the debris and look for victims,” Nunemaker says. “We don’t have to worry about what’s underneath us.” Luckily, there were no fatalities in the May 23 bridge collapse and only three people were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.

Snohomish County Fire District 21's Hovercraft 49 and crew. [Photo credit: Snohomish County Fire District 21]

This might be the first time many residents of the area have seen the flashy crimson craft flying around — but not the first time these unique vehicles have come to their aid. The Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team, comprised of rescue technicians and fire departments in the far-flung river communities of Granite Falls, Darrington, Oso, Arlington Heights and Silvana, was formed around the unique capability of hovercraft to provide rapid access over a variable landscape. From the low, flat plains of Puget Sound to the rough waters at the foothills of the Cascade Range, hovercraft allow the team to serve residents in hard-to-reach rural areas.
Before adopting hovercraft, Nunemaker’s team used boats or inflatable rafts to traverse what they could within the wide range of terrain. Hovercraft afford the ability to cover more area — in less time and with less hassle.

“It’s a great platform — especially for our area in the valley,” he continues. “It allows us to access any part of the river in our district within minutes. And it doesn’t matter what the conditions are. We operate it in the spring floods and in the summer when the water is barely three feet deep. When the river is low, it can be hard to get a boat or anything with a big hull down there. Hovercraft allow us to access parts of the river that would take us a much longer time. But we also live in a floodplain, so we use it to access our town — which is completely isolated — when it floods.”

With hovercraft, rescuers can cruise straight off a trailer, right up to houses that are completely surrounded by flood water, and get the residents to dry land. Floods also bring strainers — river obstructions such as log jams, bushes, storm grates or debris — that form a powerful vortex and can pull victims under the water, often to their deaths.

“We had a really bad summer last year and had quite a few people hung up in strainers, so we used the hovercraft to access hard-to-reach areas,” Nunemaker says. “We take it into some pretty rough waters. I’m amazed, the more time I spend on it, how reactive and stable it is in rough waters.”

Nunemaker credits his Hovercraft Training Centers operator and maintenance training for allowing his team to get the most out of their craft in challenging conditions and to keep their hovercraft running at optimal capacity in-house, without outside mechanical help.  Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team trains on hovercraft once a month to keep the craft and operators primed for fast response and successful rescues — with a protocol based on the training at Hovercraft Training Centers.

“The training (at HTC) was very skills-based and structured — one skill into another and then the next. You learn how to maneuver it and you understand what its capable of.” he says. “Rather than just putting our pilots out there for a certain number of hours, we have them perform certain skills on the craft. You can fly around on the thing for 100 hours and not really learn much about it, but actually performing the different maneuvers and learning the dynamics behind it as you do in the training is really helpful. “

Like many firefighters and budget-conscious rescue organizations considering hovercraft, Nunemaker was skeptical at first. When his chief floated the idea of buying a hovercraft to enhance rescue capability, Nunemaker resisted, fearing it might be too much trouble — and too expensive — to be feasible for his department.

“A few of us were really against it — and I was one of the biggest opponents,” Nunemaker recalls. “With the maintenance and the training and everything, I just thought it was going to be too much. But we’re capable of doing so much more now — like checking the wreckage of the bridge. It’s something we needed in order for our team to be effective in our area.”

The availability of formal training — and the confidence it provides — finally sealed the deal.

“We were pretty leery, but we pushed our chief and said, ‘If we’re going to get the hovercraft, we need to send our people for formal training so we’re doing this the right way’. I’ve gone a little bit to the school of hard knocks and all I learned about it was that there was a lot more to learn.”

It’s hard to imagine those days now, watching Nunemaker glide effortlessly through the wreckage on Interstate 5.

Most of those who travel the state’s major north-south artery — more than 77,000 vehicles daily — along with the 700,000 denizens of his county, will never know that Trent Nunemaker is standing guard, hovercraft at the ready, to keep Snohomish safe. But if they should happen to cross paths, these lucky residents will be glad to know that most Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team scenarios turn out roughly the same as the incident on the bridge or your average action blockbuster: with a happy ending.

As Washington Governor Hay Inslee said, surveying the scene the night of the collapse, “Thanks to the rescuers and a little bit of luck, we had three Skagitonians who made it out of the Skagit River alive.”

Pretty standard cinematic fare, but kind of a big deal in real life.

For Nunemaker and Hovercraft 94? Just another day.


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