Operation Santa Maria: example of military professionalism and dedication

This article presents the first moments of the Brazilian Air Forces (FAB) squads’ participation in conjunction with various military, civilians and volunteers in the tragedy that struck Santa Maria (RS) in January 2013.
By Rodrigo Pereira | 23 July 2014

The Panther Squadron is one of the main Search and Rescue units (SAR) of the Brazilian Air Force with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. [Photo: ACS/COMAR5]

This article presents the first moments of the Brazilian Air Forces (FAB) squads’ participation in conjunction with various military, civilians and volunteers in the tragedy that struck Santa Maria (RS) in January 2013. Therefore, the goal is to register the professionalism and dedication of all those who have, in some way, acted and are still working toward minimizing or easing the pain for the loss suffered by an entire city.

The helicopters even landed at a public square in Porto Alegre, near the Pronto Socorro Hospital to expedite the assistance to victims of the fire. [Photo: ACS/COMAR5]

The city of Santa Maria, in the central region of Rio Grande do Sul, is the fifth largest city in the southern region of Brazil, and it is known as a university town with a strong presence of the Armed Forces. On January 27, 2013, Santa Maria suffered one of the greatest tragedies in Brazil. A fire during a university party killed 242 and seriously injured another 126 young people.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, the operations officer for the 5th/8th GAV, Major Aviator Barrios, was informed that a fire had consumed a nightclub in the heart of Santa Maria and there were many victims. Major Barrios immediately contacted the commander of the BASM health squadron to request the support of FAB doctors. He was informed that the BASM health squadron was already aware of the situation and the entire medical staff was already there providing support, and that doctors and firemen of the BASM were already deployed and assisting victims. Because the club was located in the center of Santa Maria and the main city hospitals were near the site where the tragedy occurred, no one could have imagined the need for air rescue, because all of the hospital transportation had already occurred by ambulance or in volunteers’ private vehicles. However, around nine o'clock in the morning, the 5th/8th officer in charge of the rescue contacted Major Barrios, immediately communicating the request to the representative of the SAMU (Mobile Emergency Care Service) to send medical helicopters to evacuate the victims.

It appeared, however, that the FAB UH-60 Black Hawks are not aerial ICUs and the squad did not have oxygen masks or resuscitators (minimum items required for the transportation of a patient hospitalized in ICU). In a normal situation, for instance, when a victim is in serious condition and has to be transported to another region, the UH-60 Black Hawk is not the best recommendation. In this situation, the best choice would be to transport via ambulance, where the patient has an entire life support infrastructure.

Still in the morning, the BASM commander, already aware of the entire situation, as well as the health squadron commander, had already received a phone call from the commander of CONGAR (General Command of Air), Major General Rosato, authorizing every possible support necessary to Santa Maria.

As a result, Major Barros called the SOA (24-hour alert service officer of the squadron) and summited the crew of the four UH-60 available. There was a fifth helicopter, but it only had a few available flight hours and it was due for inspection, so this helicopter was standing by and ready to fly up to the limit of its available hours if necessary. All crews were mobilized, even though there was no prospect of adapting the UH-60 to become a mobile ICU. During the transportation to the BASM, Major Barrios contacted the SAMU main physician, informing that the aircrafts were available and explaining that the UH-60 did not have the most appropriate means for transporting victims in serious condition. The words of the SAMU doctor were:

- Major, we do not have any more ICU and if these people are not transported now they will die!

At this time, it became similar to a real war mission, where the priority is to remove combatants from the battlefield, or they will die. It was then requested that the SAMU representative provided equipment, medical and paramedic support for the victims, during the helicopter transportation.

It was together with the acting commander of BASM, the senior officer present at that moment, Colonel Grancove (commander of the squadron of UAV - Horus), that the aerial resources became the responsibility of Major Barrios for that operation. Thus, the operation coordination work began with the deployment of the rescue team chief, Lieutenant Yuri, to the Charity hospital of Santa Maria, in addition to Major doctor Monica, who was already at the university hospital. With the two officers present in the hospitals the work to close the links between the resources available for rescue began.

The 5th/8th GAV – Brazilian Air Force’s Panther Squadron is established at the Santa Maria Air Base and it was one of the units engaged in the Aeromedical Evacuation operations. [Photo: ACS/COMAR5]

There was always a representative of the FAB, the SAMU and a local doctor, who determined which victims were stabled (main criteria for the success of any air medical transport) to start the transport. The representative of the SAMU closed the link with the coordination in Porto Alegre, preparing ambulances and rooms to receive the victims, and the representative of the FAB coordinated the helicopter, with the BASM.

In that moment an air bridge between Santa Maria and Porto Alegre was created. The UH-60 flew from the BASM and landed on the football field in front of the military brigade in the center of Santa Maria, the ambulance took two victims from the helicopter. Then the helicopter flew to Porto Alegre, landed in the Redemption Park, where the Military Police had already isolated the area. Once landed, the victims were loaded into an ambulance and taken to hospitals.

At noon, the commander of the BASM, Colonel Jeferson, took over the coordination of the aircrafts, as well as Brigadier Chaves, who was the general coordinator, responsible for COMAR V. Thus, the tactical plan was under Major Barrios, using the available resources, such as doctors, SAMU and the military of the FAB (in particular Lt. Yuri and Major Monica), forming a triad of connection between the victims’ relief coordination, the means of transport and the hospitals.

The four helicopters continued operating from early morning until sunset. The fueling was made before flying back to Santa Maria. Once landed in BASM the helicopter fueled up in 30 minutes and again flew to rescue other victims at the town.

All of FAB UH-60 Black Hawks operated continuously on the maximum speed limits and power, because the victims had a limited amount of oxygen that was dwelling during the course. This situation was very similar to a war operation, in which the maximum power and speed of the aircraft are required.

Various resources were involved in this mission. A C97 Brasilia brought missing respirators from Porto Alegre, as well as volunteer doctors. A C-130 Hercules carried doctors and materials for burns victims; the FAB 5th ETA was engaged and transported two victims, using the C95M Bandeirante. But it was the BASM C-98 Caravan aircraft that transported victims to Porto Alegre. This aircraft had all seats removed and at one point transported four victims simultaneously, transporting eight in total. At night, the C-105 CASA took over the transportation task, equipped with an aerial ICU. The C-105 CASA worked under a more controlled situation, carrying six to seven victims at once. The Military Brigade also transported victims using helicopters and airplanes, as well as the company UNIMED. It is worth pointing out that all the care and dedication in this operation resulted in zero deaths on board of the aircrafts.

The operation of Santa Maria is one of the examples of the Brazilian professionalism and dedication. During this rescue operation it was possible to observe the talented integration between various public institutions that worked in a synchronized manner, including the Fire Department of Santa Maria, who arrived timely, isolated the area and made an excellent screening work to remove the victims. Both the Charity and the university hospitals quickly checked in all victims and provided due treatment and, aware that they could not care for all, they sought alternatives to meet the needs of victims in conjunction with the SAMU. The BASM, the Military Brigade, and the Brazilian Army had an important role, isolating and transporting the bodies, and preventing images from being recorded. There were many volunteers, such as psychologists, nurses and ordinary people, either comforting the family, providing water, or even cleaning bathrooms. The city of Santa Maria, in conjunction with other institutions, assembled an entire screening process, recognition of bodies, funeral and burial. The city promptly offered the Municipal Gymnasium as a location for collective viewing. In addition, the cemeteries coordinated approximately 200 burials, with scheduled times of entry and exit and support for the entire flow of people. The graves were created with the assistance of the Brazilian Army troops. The PRF supported the ambulances on the way between the hospitals and the landing areas and also coordinated the funeral processions. Brazilian States and neighboring regions of Santa Maria provided doctors to help. The Brazilian president interrupted a trip to Chile and headed to Santa Maria, extending solidarity to the victims.

Soon after, there was a meeting with the SAMU to determine the best configuration of the UH-60 for aerial medical evacuations. They discussed the need of increasing the amount of respirators. At the meeting it was concluded that the response to the Brazilian society was very good. Despite the tragedy, the 5th/8th left the feeling of accomplishment. During all transport operations, the figure of a SAR man was present, as was a doctor, nurse, and the SAR provided assistance, and everyone felt useful, from the mechanics to the operations officer. There has never been an aerial medical evacuation with so many victims in such little time in Brazil. Major Barrios’s words summarize well the professionalism of people who acted during this tragedy:

- The doctors did a spectacular job, there is no hero, it was collective work.

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