Tribute to Rescuers, First Responders, Paramedics, Surgeons, and Others
Having read thousands of media reports of boat propeller accident victims, several common rescuer themes come to mind. Among them are the many people springing into action to try to save the lives of the victims by getting them out of danger, trying to stabilize them, transporting them to major medical care facilities, and tending to their wounds. While we do not have space of time to list the thousands of individual selfless efforts to try save those struck by boat propellers, we thought we would try to start to list them by category, then briefly describe one such instance as representative of similar efforts made by many others.
- Placing their body between loved ones and an oncoming boat to shield them from the propeller
- Bystanders quickly calling authorities to report the accident
- Stopping an unmanned circling boat that might repeatedly strike them
- Well prepared and trained commercial vessel crews with adequate medical supplies on board tour, dive, snorkel, charter, party vessels
- Bystanders that pull propeller strike victims from the water
- Apply tourniquets or pressure to stem blood loss shortly after individuals are pulled from the water
- On water rescue crews (USCG, RNLI, local water rescue crews, police & fire departments, etc.) including Search and Rescue
- Getting air to victims entrapped on propellers
- Removing the propeller when people are entrapped
- Pulling them from the water
- Doctors, nurses, and medics along with the group or nearby spring to action
- 911 Operators & Dispatchers
- Local paramedics and EMT’s that respond before life flight services arrives
- Life flight pilots and crews
- Surgeons and those who assist them
- Blood Banks
- Blood Donors
- All These Groups Working Together to Save Lives
Many other individuals help with the long recovery efforts of boat propeller strike victims, assist in recovering missing bodies, search for finding missing limbs, conduct accident investigations, etc. However, the groups listed above (often working in unison) are the ones most able to move individuals from the fatality column over to being a survivor. We created this post to honor them and their families.
Placing Their Body Between Loved Ones and an Oncoming Boat to Shield Them From the Propeller
Some propeller accident victims have purposefully placed themselves between loved ones and oncoming propellers in an attempt to shield them from harm. Some have lost their lives (MacColl) while others have been severely injured.In August 2011, Bruce Williams, 57, his wife, and daughter, had anchored their 21 foot boat near South Shore Yacht Club on the Back River (Massachusetts). They were preparing to take their 10 foot inflatable boat powered by a 10 horsepower outboard as a dory on into the yacht club dock. Emily, their 12 year old daughter, was wanting to operate the inflatable so her dad told her to start it up. Emily was the only person on the inflatable. The motor started to over rev and Bruce told her to reduce the RPM. She reached over to the throttle and knocked it into gear. The boat lurched forward, Emily fell from the stern, and the boat began to circle. Emily was wearing the kill-switch lanyard, but it broke free from her as she fell overboard.
Bruce jumped in and tried to block the boat from his daughter. Each time it passed over them he held on to her and pulled her down under him as the propeller went over them. The fifth and/or sixth time the boat circled, he was hit on top the head by the propeller and also on one hand. Bruce struggled to remain conscious as the boat continued to circle. A nearby boat eventually knocked the inflatable boat upside down and Bruce was able to swim Emily to the boat that rescued them. A piece of Emily’s blue bathing suit was still wrapped around the inflatable boat’s propeller.
After Bruce received several staples to his head wounds, some stitches, and his arm in a sling, someone said, “Your a Hero”. Bruce responded, “No, I’m father.”
Bystanders Quickly Calling Authorities to Report the AccidentPeople making these calls often go unnamed, but their service is very important. The 2009 Molly Moses accident comes to mind. Molly was coming in from a fishing trip with her father and a family friend very late one night. The boat lurched, possibly from striking a submerged object, she and the family friend were ejected, and she was struck by the propeller. Her leg was nearly severed. Three or more calls were made to 911. Two by a person viewing the accident from shore, and a third by someone at the dock when they arrived. The calls were very important in speeding medical care to the correct location. Cell phones of everybody on the boat had became wet during her rescue and would not function. Those making the calls remain unnamed, but helped save her life.
Stopping an Unmanned Circling Boat That Might Repeatedly Strike Them
When the operator and/or all on board are ejected, boats often go into the “Circle of Death”, spinning in a tight circle. Those in the water are at high risk to being struck by the boat and/or propeller. Rescue crews often try to throw a rope in front of the boat to foul the propeller. Sometimes people try to jump into the unmanned boat from a PWC or another boat, either of which is very dangerous. In the 2013 Milligan accident at Padstow Harbor in the UK, an entire family (mom, dad, and four children) were ejected resulting in two deaths and two very seriously injured. Charlie Toogood, 32 year old ski school operator and RNLI volunteer, leaped from a boat piloted by 19 year old Will Jones into the unmanned boat and brought it under control. They were able to throw a rope in the boats path and partially foul the propeller before he jumped in. His leap was actually caught on a grainy video.
As is often the case, Charlie downplayed his part in the rescue in this quote a couple days later:
There were many “heroes” in this tragic incident, all of whom did a remarkable job in difficult circumstances. However, now is a time to solely reflect on the bereaved and injured family members and their wider family and friends. My thoughts are with them all and will be for a long time to come. I have nothing more to add and would hope that our community can now be left to deal with this tragedy in own own way and in peace and quiet.
Well Prepared and Trained Commercial Vessel Crews With Adequate Medical Supplies On Board Tour, Dive, Snorkel, Charter, Party Vessels
An example does not quickly come to mind. We invite your suggestions. We have seen many ill prepared vessel crews with little on no medical supplies struggle with boat propeller injuries to their passengers. We certainly salute those who are well prepared and trained to deal with such situations.
Bystanders That Pull Propeller Strike Victims From the Water
Bystanders, including nearby boaters, are often the first ones on the scene. They often assist in pulling the victim from the water. They also often go unnamed.
1 May 2013 SAO Observer (British Columbia, Canada) reported an April 2013 Eagle Bay accident in which Bob Wolf fell from a boat when he was fishing. The unmanned boat started to circle under its own power. Local contractors Paul Hickson and Dale Kilmartin driving beside the lake saw the circling unmanned boat, then they saw someone in the water. They found an aluminum fishing boat at a house on the lake, used two 2 X 6’s as oars to row out to Wolf, and grabbed him. They saw the large gash in his head from being struck by a propeller and called for an ambulance. A nearby boat came over and helped pull their boat to shore while they clung to the victim still in the water. A local resident. Greg Moore, arrived and helped the group pull Wolf up on the shore. Moore’s partner and first aid worker, Nancy Bell, showed up with a medical supply truck and helped stabilize Wolf (struck in the head and arm) and gave him some oxygen till the ambulance arrived. One of the contractors covered Wolfe with warm clothes to try to warm him up. Wolf was taken to Shuswap Lake General Hospital. The rescuers then fouled the spinning boat’s propeller with a rope, and towed it back to Wolf’s house. SAO’s coverage of the accident includes a great photo of the bystanders that came to the rescue. This accident is an excellent example of several bystanders and nearby boaters coming to the rescue of those injured by boat propellers.
Apply Tourniquets or Pressure to Stem Blood Loss Shortly After Individuals Are Pulled From the Water
Rapid blood loss is frequently a problem with propeller injuries. Family members and loved ones often create tourniquets from clothing or belts, or press towels on the injured area to try to slow the loss of blood until help arrives.
Cian Williams’s August 2012 accident in Wales found his older brother wrapping towels around Cian’s legs and applying pressure until they reached shore. His actions are viewable in Helimed’s reenactment of the rescue in the Life Flight section below.
On Water Rescue Crews Including Search and Rescue
Few Search and Rescue operations turn out successful in propeller accidents as the boat usually remains afloat and someone knows where they went down and were last seen. There have been instances of adults being ejected and struck by the propeller with youth or children remaining onboard that were unable to retrieve the adults from the water, went for help, and were unable to find them when they returned. Search and Rescue efforts for boat propeller strike victims almost always become body recovery operations.
However, on water law enforcement and rescue teams are often very important in pulling the injured on board, sometimes in transporting them to shore because the existing boat struck a submerged object or the person and is disabled, and in alerting medical personnel and life flight services to their condition and probable shore destination, stabilizing the victim, then talking other teams to their exact location.
These teams often work together with other similar county and city units, fire departments, and police departments.In the August 2013 Aaron Tepfer accident a young boy was struck by the propeller while climbing back into the boat after he fell from a tube. Five different agencies responded.
- Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department
- Long Beach Volunteer Fire Department
- Nassau County Police
- Atlantic Beach Volunteer Fire Department
- Atlantic Beach Volunteer Rescue Squad
These unit and similar units around the country are constantly training to perfect their response. Many times we read of units training nearby an accident and being able to respond extremely quickly. That was the case in this incident. Long Beach Volunteer Fire Department was training nearby and able to respond very quickly. Some responders rode boats and Personal Watercraft (PWCs) to the site to help pull him from the propeller.
Despite their valiant efforts, Aaron Tepfer died the next day from his wounds.
Getting Air to Victims Entrapped on Propellers
Boat propeller strike victims are sometimes caught in or entrapped in the boat propeller. This can result in their head being underwater or waves washing over their face making it challenging to impossible for them to breathe. Those on board and rescuers try to keep their head up so they can breathe. We have seen instances in which rescuers uses several life jackets to try to keep the victim’s head up, used snorkeling tubes to help the victim breathe, and even used scuba gear to assist their breathing. Sometimes the boat is moved (towed) to shallow water to get it into quieter waters with smaller waves. In shallow water, people have stood and lined up to form a human breakwater to try to reduce the waves reaching the victim.
One instance comes to mind, back in April 1985 on Lake Oroville (a California houseboating lake) Edward Woodman was houseboating with his son and his 8 year old daughter, Elizabeth Woodman. Elizabeth fell overboard and her sweater became entrapped in the houseboat propeller. Edward recalled seeing someone carry their lungs full of air to someone trapped underwater in the movie, Sometimes a Great Notion. Edward successfully kept his daughter alive using that “buddy breathing” technique while his son found a knife and Edward was able to free Elizabeth from the propeller. She lost consciousness underwater, but her father was able to revive her on the surface. A State Park Ranger said their was no question that Edward had saved his daughter’s life.
Removing the Propeller When People Are Entrapped
Sometimes propeller strike victims are physically entrapped on the propeller, typically by their legs being wound up in the propeller. At times, a propeller has to be removed in order to free the person which may be having trouble breathing (see Getting Air to Victims Entrapped on Propellers).
The June 2011 Alexis Angelopolous propeller accident was a classic case of propeller entrapment. A 12 year old girl had he legs caught in a 24 foot Grady White twin contra-rotating outboard propeller off Virginia Beach. John Pritchard, a boat mechanic, seen wearing Mercury shirt was able to get the prop off. He said had to dive underwater to perform the task and later said he was surprised he was able to get them off. He attributed his success to the boat being recently serviced and greased up.
WVEC has a great video of the rescue and interview with John Pritchard.
Pulling Them From the Water
Bystanders often spring into action to pull propeller strike victims from the water. Some California teenage girls in town for a softball tournament sprang into action when they observed a June 2013 propeller accident on Horsetooth Reservoir (Colorado). Others on the boat with he victim had been drinking and were not responding. Jolene Majel quickly went in the water and pulled the man to shore while the other girls helped her pull him up on a rock. Authorities credit the girls with saving his life.
9News has some excellent coverage of the accident and an interview with the girls in the video below.
Doctors, Nurses, and Medics Along With the Group or Nearby Spring to Action
We have seen almost countless accidents in which highly trained medical personnel were along on the boat, along on the tour or diving charter, eating nearby at a restaurant, observed the accident, or were otherwise nearby. They quickly spring into action and their response helps save the life of the propeller victim. The severity of these accidents combined with massive loss of blood makes quick response vital to their survival.
This is even more pronounced in remote parts of the world often encountered by diving expeditions / tours. These tours are sometimes ill prepared to deal with a propeller accident, but a medical person accompanying the group as a fellow diver or tourist has sometimes come to the rescue.
In July 2011 John Hinton, 58, was spearfishing from a 30 foot Contender in the Bahamas. John was widely known for his humorous, wacky commercials promoting John’s Appliance, an appliance store with multiple locations in Florida. John’s wife was operating the boat. Being inexperienced, she failed to put the boat in neutral, John dove in, large swells pushed him into the propeller, and he received a 5 inch gash to his neck that barely missed an artery along with cuts to his head and right arm. John tried to reboard as fast as possible to avoid his blood attracting sharks previously seen in the area. Chris Gerkin, a Daytona Beach Emergency Technician and boyfriend of John’s daughter happened to be on board. Chris treated John during the 30 minute boat run to his vacation home while John’s family called ahead for help. Many people from the island met them on their arrival including two retired medical doctors. John was then driven to the airport where a local volunteer flew him an hour to Fort Pierce, the nearest American hospital. An ambulance met their small plane at Fort Pierce and took John to the hospital. Having all these medical professionals nearby prevented John’s condition from getting much worse during transport to the hospital and hastened his eventual recovery. Plus the local pilot volunteering to ferry John to Fort Pierce was a blessing as well. Doctors at the hospital were repeatedly amazed at John’s condition upon his arrival given the seriousness of his wounds and his long journey.
Several propeller accidents have occurred near or in swimming areas patrolled by lifeguards. Such was the February 2011 Gabby DeSouza accident at Juno Beach, Florida. Gabby, 14, was boarding a 22 foot Cobia in a swimming area just off Juno Pier when a wave may have pushed her into the propeller. Juno Beach Lifeguards had previously warned the boat to stay clear of the swimming area. After Gabby was struck, the boat fled the scene. The Juno Beach Lifeguards quickly came to her rescue and she was life flighted to a medical center. Gabby survived, but later lost her leg below the knee.
Marinas often serve as a base station for rescue operations. People observing the accident from marina’s call 911 for help, those heading to on water rescue efforts often gather at and depart from marinas, the victim is often brought to a marina or marina dock, ambulances and life flight operations are often dispatched to marinas, marina personnel often assist in the rescue, and the vessel involved in the accident is often later brought to a marina. Marinas provide parking, facilities, some supplies, and a base of operations for rescues of all types of boating accidents.
One such instance involves South Down Shores Marina and the September 5, 2013 propeller strike of a ten year old boy in New Hampshire. More details of South Downshores Marina’s involvement are in the final segment of this post titled, “All These Groups Working Together to Save Lives”.
911 Operators & Dispatchers
Day in and Day out 911 operators (999 in the UK) try to calm those calling in, determine the type of injuries involved, number of people injured, location of the accident, and dispatch the help needed. A challenge specific to accidents on the water is locating the accident without the cross streets they are used to obtaining. Many boaters are not aware of their exact location and some dispatchers cover vast expanses and many not be familiar with area lakes and rivers. Plus those calling in may still be in route to shore. They tell the dispatcher where they think they are headed, but they end up going somewhere else. Medical crews arriving on the wrong side of a lake or river can result in loss of life. To prevent some of these problems, sometimes they try to keep the caller on the line til help arrives.
We do not have a specific 911 Operator & Dispatcher example to list at this time but are open to your recommendations. They perform a very valuable service.
Local Paramedics and EMT’s That Respond Before Life Flight Services Arrive
The first medical people on the scene are often tasked with trying to stem the loss of blood and stabilize the propeller strike victim so they can be life flighted to a major trauma unit. They prepare those less seriously injured for being transported by ambulances. When the victim is conscious, they try to calm them.
Medical first responders are often nameless individuals that make the difference in life or death situations. An example of such an individual is Andrew Watt from the August 2012 Cian Williams rescue. He is shown in the Helimeds re-enactment video in the next section. The photo below was clipped from the Helimeds reenactment.
Life Flight Pilots and Crews
When time is of these essences, these angels from the sky sweep in and quickly deliver propeller accident victims to trauma units that may be great distances away. Many of these services have cool names often only known locally. Names like Trauma Hawk, that flew Gabby DeSouza in Palm Beach, Florida in February 2011.We selected Helimed of Wales to represent this group. Helimeds re-enacted their August 2012 rescue of young Cian Williams for their tv show. To view the Helimeds re-enactment, select Episode 4. Cian’s story starts at about 11 minutes and 40 seconds on the timer. It runs for about 8.5 minutes, including Andrew Watt, the first paramedic on the scene, describing the situation before Carl Hudson and Sam Williams, Helimeds paramedics, arrive by helicopter.
We cannot say enough about how many propeller victims lives have been saved by life flight helicopter crews. The ability to rush prop strike victims to trauma centers greatly increases their odds of survival, helps save many limbs, and speeds their recovery.
Surgeons and Those Who Assist Them
Upon arrival at trauma units, propeller strike victims are typically whisked to surgery. These highly trained individuals are often all that stands between them and death. Initial surgeries can last many hours. Some last so long surgeons have to trade off. A few examples: Andrew Lyons (8 hours), Cian Williams (4 hours), Shirley Koop Jones (10 hours), Samantha Maywell (10 hours), Molly Moses (about 18 hours),
While it is not uncommon for propeller accident victims to have to go under the knife repeatedly later as wounds are closed, unsaveable limbs are amputated, body parts are resculptured, and problems are addressed. Many have undergone twenty or more surgeries, with some as many as fifty, but this first time is the most critical. That is when death must be held at bay.
Major elements of the initial surgery include stemming the loss of blood, surveying the wounds, reattaching blood flow to the extremities, trying to reattach amputated or nearly amputated limbs, all the while pumping the patient full of blood.
In some instances surgeons have tried to save near full term unborn babies when their mothers were fatally or near fatally injured (Hepler, Holley).
While highly skilled surgeons are the “font line”, surgeons will quickly tell you that without support of the nurses, aids, staff, doctors, hospitals, and trauma units they would be unable to do their job.
With surgeons being so important, we are going to depart from our “pick one” plan and honor three surgeons, with two of them being connected to propeller accidents in nontraditional ways.
1. Shirley Koop Jones, 23, was swimming to the rear of a houseboat on Lake Shasta in July 1995 when the motor started and the houseboat backed into her. Shirley’s legs were cut severely and she was life flighted to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California (where many other propeller accident victims have been taken). Surgeons worked on her about ten hours. Her right leg was amputated a couple days later. Her left leg was held together with a steel frame. A blood infection caused suffering so bad we will not write about here. She eventually died about a week after the accident. Surgeons sometimes put forth great efforts and are still unable to save victims of propeller strikes.
2. July 28, 2003, Andrew Lyons, a UK plastic surgeon, was struck by a boat propeller off Spain. His left arm was almost amputated, he thought he was dying, but his 11 year old son jumped in to save him. Still far from help, he pinched his thumb and forefinger together and thought he might be able to work again. Once he was stabilized, most thought his career as a surgeon was over. He underwent a 7 hour operation in Spain to save his arm, and more surgeries back in the UK. Before the accident he had primarily worked on repairing people after cancer surgery. Now he vowed to be back to work in six months. The task was overwhelming. At one low point he thought about resigning himself to teaching anatomy the rest of his career. He walked four hours a day to stay fit, painted, started running four miles a day, and was talking to outpatients at his old job just 3 months after the accident. But gaining the dexterity and confidence of a surgeon, and proving that to the certifying boards would take much longer. He started doing simple surgical procedures in 2004, and was independently assessed by a University Hospital, and was returned to full duty in mid 2005 (two years after the accident). Dr. Lyons said the experience gave him a greater empathy for his patients.
3. M.A. Mendez-Fernandez a surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California authored, Motorboat Propeller Injuries, published by the Annals of Plastic Surgery August 1998. The article reviews propeller accident statistics, recounts his experiences with 9 propeller accident victims treated from 1990-1996, reviews the literature, and calls for the use of propeller guards. Later, he respond to U.S. Coast Guard requests for public comment on some propeller safety proposals. We appreciate Dr. Mendez-Fernandez taking time from his busy life as a surgeon to become an advocate for boat propeller safety.
Stored blood is a vital element in saving lives of propeller accident victims. Those injured by propellers often lose tremendous amounts of blood during the accident, then require vast amounts of blood as soon as possible and continue may continue to require substantial quantities of blood during their first days at the hospital. We often see reports of people needing 20 units of blood. Normal adults have about 10 to 12 units (5 to 6 quarts) of blood in their system. Some propeller injuries require as much as 40 or 50 units, we have seen one that required 80 units. Without this amount blood (of the correct blood type) being on hand, or very nearby, those injured would be dead.
At least one blood bank is well known for its ties to a boat propeller accident victim.
Molly Moses, July 2009 accident in Alabama, left her with a mangled leg that surgeons tried to save. She required 50 units of blood over the first few days. Volunteer donors quickly started walking in nearby LifeSouth Community blood centers. Two blood drives for her were quickly organized and many donors came to help.
Since then, Molly has remained in contact with LifeSouth, appeared at the dedication of their new district headquarters, attended a ribbon cutting for a new blood center, and appears in one of their commercials, encouraging people to give blood.
Thanks to LifeSouth and thousands of other blood banks around the world that collect and store blood in advance for use in emergencies, such as boat propeller accidents.
In many parts of the world, these services are not available as seen in the next section.
Blood donors typically go unnamed and are not remembered, however, they perform a very vital service. We would like to thank all those who regularly donate blood and encourage others to consider doing the same.
We have seen some propeller accidents outside the U.S. where doctors and nurses have been scurrying around trying to find matching blood donors. One such instance was Maurice Abrahams, from the UK. Maurice was scuba diving in a popular Egyptian diving destination in 2011. A second boat had arrived as he surfaced and was starting its propeller. Maurice was pulled into it and might have been decapitated, except his scuba tank hit the propeller. He still received serious wounds to much of his lower body. His friends got him to shore, and he was taken to an area hospital. The divers were staying at El Gouna on Egypt’s Red Sea Coast. Doctors had to call on other guests at the resort for blood to save Maurice. He was able to fly home three days later for a long hospital stay in the UK. Thanks to the blood donors that saved him.
All These Groups Working Together to Save Lives
The groups above often work in concert with one another to save lives. An article in the September 6, 2013 Laconia Daily Sun (New Hampshire) on a boy being struck on Paugus Bay when his father accidentally backed the boat over him tells of one of many instances of several of the groups listed above working together to help save propeller accident victims.
The father and a younger brother were able to get him into the boat and to south Down Shores Marina dock.
Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Riley and the city firefighting paramedic team: Chad Vaillancourt, Dennis Comeau, Chucky Campbell, and Nathan Mills worked on the young boy and prepared him for transport.
Members of the Laconia Police Department cleared a nearby area for the life flight helicopter to land.
A dock hand at the marina brought rescuers some urgently needed medical supplies and medical equipment.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team (DHART) dispatched one of their life flight helicopters and its crew to the scene.
DHART’s life flight helicopter crew loaded the boy and headed to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon New Hampshire. His father and brother left in an SUV for the hospital.
Some firefighters stayed behind to wash down the boat so the father would not have to deal with that on his return. While a very thoughtful gesture, we hope that was done after accident investigators had a chance to view the boat and some photos were taken.
Back to Marina’s helping out. The same New Hampshire community had a fire near another marina in early 2012, Paugus Bay Marina. That marina organized a very successful charity golf tournament benefiting the fire department for their efforts in minimizing damages at the marina. In late September 2013 a similar tournament will benefit the Laconia Police Relief Association.
Many survivors of boat propeller strikes owe their lives to one of more of the groups above.
We enjoyed putting this tribute together and salute all who come to the aid of those struck by boat propellers, especially those who help the day of the accident when so much depends upon their aid.
As always, we welcome your comments.