On September 3, 2017 right around sunset, three experienced BASE jumpers prepared to jump off a wall on Lower Gemini Bridge Road named ‘French Kiss.’ Ammon McNeely, the second to exit, struck the wall which resulted in a partial chute collapse and an accelerated freefall to the ground from 400 feet. For the next 12 hours, the life of McNeely was put into the hands of Grand County Search and Rescue, Department of Public Safety emergency helicopter pilots, emergency medical technicians, Grand County Sheriff’s Office and others. The crews worked together to perform life-saving, critical care for McNeely until morning light when the helicopter could pick him up.
The incident has received the Rural Incident of the Year Award presented by Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and Preparedness. “Awards are given to those incidents involving an emergency medical response by an agency or multiple agencies that performed exceptional skills and competency during a highly charged and critically severe emergency medical incident,” explained Tamara Goodin, regional consultant of the Utah Department of Health and Bureau of EMS. “The emergency medical responders who responded that day demonstrated sound judgment and proficient ability and skill with a determination to achieve the best possible outcome for the patient.” Grand County EMS, GCSAR, and Classic Air Medical were honored at the EMS Awards Show on July 11, 2018.
“It was one of those times we pulled off the impossible,” said Matt Lajeunesse, a professional skydiver and BASE jumper. At the time of the incident, Lajeunesse was driving south on Highway 191 when he called Ian Mitchard, a friend who was the third to exit off French Kiss. Over the call, Lajeunesse head that something had gone terribly wrong in McNeely’s jump. Mitchard had said, “He went in,” a code meaning death. Lajeunesse immediately called for help and raced to find his friends. Nick Williamson, the first to exit, and Mitchardson, who climbed down the wall instead of jumping, had already applied a makeshift belt tourniquet to help stop the bleeding from McNeely’s partially amputated right leg, which was hanging on by just skin. “I have never seen so much blood from a living person,” Lajeunesse said. McNeely’s injuries included a severely traumatized right leg, multiple fractures to his left leg, a fractured clavicle and fractured wrist.
“I remember high-fiving my buddies before the jump, but that’s about it,” said McNeely. “The rest of the time I wasn’t sure where I was, or why I was there.” McNeely landed on a steep scree field that averaged to be a 50-degree slope with large loose boulders, only feet from a 400-foot cliff. Nick Williamson was the first on the scene and like Mitchard, believed McNeely to be dead. When Williamson cut the canopy away he heard McNeely groan, which meant it was a rescue mission instead of a recovery mission. Due to the level of injury and location, the Classic Air Medical Helicopter was not immediately able to transport him to a hospital.
Captain McKay Vowles was the first medic on the scene followed shortly by Ambulance 51 with EMT Robin Reibold and paramedic Britney Bastian. They followed a flashlight the BASE jumpers waved around to find the patient. Initial care from the paramedics included multiple IVs, bleeding control, vasopressors to keep initial blood pressure up until fluid boluses could take affect and pain control. They also applied a commercial grade CAT tourniquet above his right knee. “I would have died without the tourniquet and the drugs to keep the pain level down,” McNeely stated. “I really wasn’t feeling my best, but my friend Adam Krum kept my spirits up. He kept me singing pirate songs throughout the night until the sun came up.”
The second round of rescuers from GCSAR and EMS searched for on an extraction point for the helicopter to reach. Due to the cliff-side location, the helicopter crew Nurse Craig Campbell and Medic Jake Blackwelder decided to hike supplies down the scree field to McNeely. The best way to get food, water, medical supplies, and rope gear was to deliver it through the helicopter - which required Kody Henderson, the pilot, to get as close as possible to the cliff and hover near the ground. They were able to pass bags of equipment to the rescuers huddled on the scree slope.
The original plan for extraction was to move McNeely about 600 feet down the slope to an area the helicopter could pick him up. Using a rope and anchor bolts, the rescuers rigged a system to lower him down, but it was futile. After about an hour of slow steps the crew moved 75 feet so the plan was stopped due to potential danger for the rescuers and McNeely. For the next six hours the medics continued to treat McNeely with vasopressors, ketamine for pain control, and fluid management to stabilize his blood pressure. There were several episodes of vomiting that could not be controlled with antiemetics and he was also administered ancef to prevent infection of the open wounds.
At around seven in the morning, after more than eleven hours on the mountainside, the Department of Public Safety’s helicopter arrived and set-up for the complicated hoist mission. McNeely was loaded into the hoist bag while the helicopter held a steady hover about fifty feet from the cliff face. He was immediately flown to the trauma center at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, then transferred to Salt Lake Regional Medical Center for the surgical amputation of his right leg just below the knee. McNeely now wears a prosthetic. “At first, it was difficult to even walk a mile,” said McNeely. “Now I’m hiking fifteen miles no problem, I climbed a first-ascent AID route near Kane Creek and I’m skydiving. I can’t even express my gratitude for those guys. I owe them my life.”
In 2017, GCSAR received a total of 132 calls and five were from BASE jump incidents. “While is depends on the time of year, the summer months have a fair amount of heat exhaustion from bikers and hikers,” said Jim Webster, Commander of Grand County Search and Rescue. “In the spring and fall, there are more trauma calls for mountain bikers, ATVs and hikers.” While BASE jump accidents are often more intense rescues, they are not the most prominent in numbers.