Managing Austere Evacuation

From Combat & Casualty Care, Q1 2019 Issue

By John Voinche, Skedco Correspondent

Bud Calkin, founder of Skedco, Portland, OR, recalls first hearing of the Thailand cave rescue a couple of days after 13 young boys, members of a junior football team, had gone missing on Saturday June 23, 2018. Their bicycles were abandoned at the cave’s entrance. The cave, known as Tham Luang Nang Non, in Chiang Rai Province, has the longest known tunnel system in Thailand, measuring 7 ½ miles. During the rescue effort, which began about a week after the boys were found by two British divers, the PJ Sked, one of several different Sked stretchers manufactured by Skedco, was used to ferry the boys out of the cave.

Like all Sked stretchers, the PJ Sked is made of medium density E-Z glide polyethylene plastic. The nylon webbing included has a tensile strength of 9,000 lbs., while the rope (3/8”) used in the Sked for hoisting is rated at 6,000 lbs. The minimum breaking strength (MBS) of the Cobra® quick-release buckles is 3,000 lbs. Deployed, the PJ Sked measures eight (8) feet long X 28 inches wide. Rolled up in the backpack, it is 36 inches long and nine (9) inches in diameter. The PJ Sked weighs 14 lbs., complete with accessories. The PJ Sked is designed to do everything a standard Sked SK-200 will do. The only difference between the two is the standard Sked is 36 inches wide and the PJ Sked is 28 inches wide. This allows for an 8-inch shorter pack and it makes it much easier to go through a door with it across a ruck-sack. Cobra® quick release buckles are included for faster and safer patient packaging. Because of its ruggedness, reliability and resiliency, many of the original Skeds produced nearly 40 years ago are still in service.

Terrain-Challenged Rescue

Locating the boys was hampered by rising water levels with strong currents inside the cave which resulted in a massive international rescue effort. Among the contingent of military and civilian teams were U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen from the 31st Rescue Squadron located at Kadena AFB, Japan. Part of the equipment cache brought by the 31st were PJ Skeds which were designed specifically for the pararescue mission.

“Because of the versatility of the Sked Stretcher, divers were able to package both the patient and air tanks inside the Sked”, according to Calkin. This rescue plan was necessary because many of the boys couldn’t swim. Many points along the rescue route were underwater and in order to protect the boys both physically and emotionally they were administered an anesthetic for the journey out of the cave. The boys wore a wetsuit, buoyancy jacket, harness and a positive pressure full face mask. When not in the water, the PJ Sked provided ease of transport and protection over rocks and sand hills.

In all, the rescue effort involved more than 10,000 people, over 100 divers, about 100 government agencies, 900 police officers, 2,000 soldiers, and 700 diving cylinders. Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, India, Israel, Japan, Laos, The Netherlands, Russia, The United Kingdom, and the United States all provided personnel and equipment.

Calkin also says in the many years he’s manufactured untold quantities of Skeds, he has heard stories of many unique ways in which his product has been used. But this scenario he says was one-of-a-kind. “The caving industry has used Sked Stretchers for decades”, says Calkin, but when I heard that it was used in this particular fashion and that all 13 victims had been rescued, that was very rewarding indeed”.

In the days leading up to the rescue operation, officials and family members alike were fearful that due to rising waters and the length of time the boys were in the cave, no one would come out alive. Although all 13 boys were saved, tragically on July 5, Saman Kunan, a 37-year old retired Thai Navy Seal, who showed up as a volunteer, died when he lost consciousness under water.

As Calkin reflected on the rescue effort some days after it was over, he realized that he was celebrating his birthday on or about the day when the last 5 boys were brought out of the cave. “The real heroes”, says Calkin, “are the brave men and women who risked their lives for others. I just provided one of the tools”.

Ahead

Skedco is currently developing a new Sked for the Army called the Folding Sked for use in the “hell hole” in armored vehicles and other places around armored vehicles.

Skedco is also in the final development of a new combat litter that will be ready for fielding before the end of 2019. Final testing will occur within the next few months.