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Dropping in for a river rescue


September 5, 2013

DURYEA — Matthew Echalk was taking a walk in the field behind his house when he heard people shouting, telling him to get out of the way.

Echalk, who has Down syndrome, had finished his shift at Pittston Area High School cafeteria, was walking in a field behind the Germania Volunteer Fire Company on Foote Avenue when he spotted the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter approaching to land. At that point, Echalk ran as fast as he could to escape the 95 to 120 mph winds generated by the helicopter’s blades.

It was a simulated rescue training session, conducted by the Pennsylvania Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team — PA HART — assisted by the Germania SCUBA & Water Rescue Team. The team would demonstrate a hoist rescue operation in the field and then a training mission near Scovell Island in the Exeter section of the Susquehanna River.

“Wow, that was neat,” Echalk said.

Neighbors came out of their homes to check out the impressive 16-ton helicopter and to ask why it was there on an otherwise quiet and sunny September day.

The PA HART team is a specialized aerial search and rescue team available to respond to disasters. Team members receive technical training that prepares them to engage in hostile environmental conditions in both urban and wilderness settings.

Len Basara, a rescue technician with PA HART and captain of the Germania SCUBA Rescue Team, coordinated the exercise to help train county emergency personnel. Basara said there are 20 to 25 water rescues conducted each year in Luzerne County.

We go to ice rescues in Hazleton to flipped canoes in Harding,” Basara said. “Today’s exercise will train everybody on events that would require an air asset.”

Steve Bekanich, Luzerne County emergency management director, said two rescue boats — one from Harding and one from Germania — were used to simulate a river rescue. He said the training session re-enacted an actual 911 call that would dispatch the nearest rescue boats and then determine if additional units would be needed, such as the PA HART helicopter unit.

“This exercise will give us the opportunity to train with a live air asset,” Bekanich said.

Scott Grahn, commander of the 20-member PA HART team, conducted an emergency briefing that provided details to the responding units. The pilot of the helicopter and the crew were not aware of where they would be dispatched until the exact time that the first responders determined the need.

“We will proceed as if this is an actual rescue,” Grahn said.

All members of the PA HART team are volunteers, each having jobs in varying areas. He said all members have mutual aid agreements with their employers to allow them to be dispatched when an emergency occurs.

The team members all wore T-shirts with the phrase: “When all else fails, we drop in.”

“This training makes your county better and it makes the state of Pennsylvania better — and safer,” Grahn said.

Grahn said two hoist devices were brought for the training session — a Strop and a Jungle Penetrator — that can be used in open areas or in wooded areas.

All members of all units were provided an Incident Action Plan that detailed all objectives of the training mission. It included names and assigned duties of all involved, radio communication frequencies, a medical plan, an activity log and maps of the rescue area.

The Blackhawk helicopter performed two simulated rescues in the Susquehanna River between Scovell Island and the former railroad bridge now owned by Leo A. Glodzik of LAG Towing.

To see more of PA HART’s previous training exercises, go to the PA HART YouTube channel at

In addition to Grahn, PA HART members participating were Ryan Walt, Mike Kurtz, Chris Calhoun, Bud Kaufman and Basara. John Fefolt, chief warrant officer and assistant PA HART commander, represented the Pennsylvania National Guard. Jason Murtha piloted the helicopter.












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