|he 82nd CST rescue team works to rescue an “injured” Staff |
Sgt. Dustin Clement during a training exercise deep within
Jewel Cave National Monument
Staff Sgt. Clement and Sgt. Eric Haivala were searching for potential radioactive material in the cave when it happened. Tourists were getting ill down there and the symptoms sounded a lot like exposure to radiation. So Jewel Cave officials called in the South Dakota Air and Army National Guard's 82nd Civil Support Team. They specialize in dealing with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Clement and Haivala discovered some potentially radioactive material in a trashcan in a section of the cave affectionately referred to as the torture chamber.
But Clement's unbelievably broken leg has changed the mission from an investigation to a rescue.
“Ouch,” Clement said, prone on a corrugated steel staircase more than 300 feet underground in Jewel Cave. “It smells like almonds.”
That's a clever joke for a man this busted up — exposed broken bones reportedly smell a lot like almonds. The pain must not be that great for the man on the floor.
Clement feels no pain, actually. That's because he didn't break his leg. This isn't real; it's a training exercise. Staff Sgt. David Fischer has been following Clement and Haivala this whole time, telling them where they were getting radiation readings and how much — verbalizing the scenario. They were headed deeper into the cave to search for more radioactive material when Fischer casually announced: “Clement, you're hurt. You've got a broken leg. The bones are protruding through the skin.”
A call was placed on a cave phone to a first response rescue team up top. It took them about 15 minutes to get down to Clements. It took them a lot longer to wrap him up in blankets and tarps on an orange medical sled and haul him out of the cave. But Clement made it out safe and sound, if not overheated.
“This exercised our confined space training and radiation training in a different way,” said Staff Sgt. Alex Raber, communications NCO with the 82nd. “This was something out of the ordinary that we don't deal with all the time. Most of the time we're out in the prairie where you can see where the target is. This made things a lot more complicated because we couldn't use our radios. We had to use the assets that the cave actually has for this exercise.”
Larry Johnson, Jewel Cave National Monument superintendent said he thought the training exercise was beneficial for both the 82nd and Jewel Cave staff.
“This helps our cave rescue folks work with a team like this that obviously knows what they're doing. We want to learn from them and this afforded us the opportunity to do that,” he said. “Hopefully this was a new twist for them in their training. Chances are they haven't been in a cave environment before. So, hopefully this prepares them a little bit more for the kind of things that might happen here in the Black Hills area.”
Staff Sgt. Raber said the opportunity to train with other first responders in the cave environment was very valuable.
“It's always good to come out here and integrate with them,” he said. “We don't want the first time we run into them to be the real thing. We want to know our ups and downs with everybody.”
Johnson said there are only a handful of cave rescues a year — usually from sickness rather than injury. He said he and his staff train as much as they can for these situations and that this exercise helped the Park Service at least much as it helped the 82nd.
“We like to think we're ready, but you can never be completely ready for things like this,” he said.