When Larry Rollins suffered a massive heart attack during a family picnic in a remote Idaho mountain meadow last month, one of his nephews climbed to the top of a ridge and called 911 with his mobile phone.
The meadow was 27 miles from the trailhead, but the call made it through to Shoshone County dispatchers. The family tried to keep the 55-year-old electrician alive with chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing. They were told a helicopter was being sent. But that didn’t happen for hours. “It wouldn’t have made any difference, but at that time no one knew,” Jeanne Rollins said. “The situation wasn’t treated as an emergency.”
Now Rollins is trying to get some answers. The Rose Lake, Idaho, resident wants to know why it took 3 1/2 hours for a helicopter to be sent to the meadows. And why a search-and-rescue team did not hit the trail until two hours after the first phone call was made.
Rollins insisted she is not looking to sue anybody. “All I want is answers. I just want the public to know what happened.”
Shoshone County Sheriff Chuck Reynalds said local search-and-rescue crews were not immediately dispatched because county officials were told a helicopter was being sent by Northwest MedStar, which operates air ambulances throughout the Inland Northwest.
“Once we had a helicopter, there was no reason to start the ground crew,” Reynalds said. “We were expecting a helicopter. … The only logical way to get the person out was by helicopter.”
Between 30 and 40 minutes passed before the county learned the MedStar flight had been canceled, Reynalds estimated. The county then called for a helicopter from Fairchild Air Force Base. The base has assisted with helicopter rescues in the past – mainly for lost hunters – but the service is offered only as a courtesy, Reynalds said. The Fairchild helicopter hadn’t yet lifted off nearly an hour after the MedStar ambulance was canceled. Reynalds then sent out the local search-and-rescue crew to make the two-hour ride into the meadow.
Meanwhile, the Rollins family continued lifesaving attempts. Rollins’ 25-year-old daughter and his younger brother spent nearly two hours performing CPR.
“They exhausted themselves. We had to lift them off his body,” Jeanne Rollins said.
The family had planned to spend the afternoon of June 5 in Bronson Meadows roasting hot dogs and enjoying the early summer scenery. The large, grassy expanse was one of Larry Rollins’ favorite places, his widow said. But he was not able to take his family to the meadow until recently, after purchasing all-terrain vehicles to make the difficult journey up steep, rutted trails.
Rollins, who appeared to be healthy and had no known history of heart trouble, was sitting in a lawn chair eating pistachio nuts when he fell to the ground and stopped breathing, Jeanne Rollins said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Rain began falling as the family waited for rescuers. They covered Rollins’ body with their rain gear.
“We didn’t want him laying there in the rain,” she said.
A helicopter from Fairchild arrived about 8:45 p.m. Rollins was declared dead. An autopsy revealed that his heart was severely blocked and his chances of survival even in an urban setting might have been slim, but Jeanne Rollins believes every attempt should have been made to respond quickly to the call for help.
Larry Rollins had previously worked as a member of the mine rescue team for the nearby Sunshine Mine. He also spent 12 years volunteering for the Rose Lake Quick Response Unit.
“He would have been downright ashamed at the way the situation was handled,” Jeanne Rollins said.
A spokesman for MedStar said the company is reviewing its dispatch logs but was unable to determine Wednesday what grounded the flight. Unsuitable landing areas sometimes prevent MedStar helicopters from conducting backcountry rescues, the spokesman said.
For remote rescues, the county is at the mercy of MedStar or Fairchild, Sheriff Reynalds said. The county has typically had “awesome” responses from both organizations. Otherwise, Reynalds said, he would have dispatched a ground team earlier.
“We’ve never had an instance like this,” he said.
Reynalds has spoken to family members by phone and at his office, but the meetings became increasingly heated. When one family member mentioned getting a lawyer, Reynalds said he decided to stop talking about the case. The case is a tragedy, Reynalds said, and there was nothing he could have done to change the outcome.
“Nothing I was able to say would placate the family,” Reynalds said. “I don’t know what to say. I feel very badly about the death.”
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