SES volunteers and surfers had to carry a teenager with suspected spinal injuries almost two kilometres on a rising tide from Broulee Island on Saturday morning, while the nearby rescue helicopter sat idle.
Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter general manager Stephen Leahy has confirmed that the Moruya service was not called after Broulee’s Elijah Donoghue was hurt surfing off Pink Rocks at about 8am.
Surf lifesavers also said they were overlooked and have denied a NSW Ambulance claim that they were at the scene when paramedics arrived.
The 14-year-old’s mother, Stacey, said a paramedic at the scene was frustrated that a request to the NSW Ambulance Service to call the helicopter was rejected on the grounds that Elijah was no longer in the water.
“A paramedic phoned and tried to get the Westpac helicopter and was told that the police are supposed to phone that through,” Mrs Donoghue said.
“Because he was not actually in the water, they would not come out.”
Instead, the SES was called and it took nine people more than 40 minutes to carry Elijah over rocks and sand, reaching an ambulance in Harbour Parade at 11.20am, two-and-a-half hours after the Triple 0 call at 8.49 am.
Mrs Donoghue said her son was “a big, mature 14-year-old” and paramedics believed ambulance command would call the helicopter “if they were here to see just how far we have to carry this kid”.
Mrs Donoghue commended and thanked all rescuers and said Elijah suffered no major injury and was released from hospital after 3pm. However his wait was prolonged.
“I would hate for the same thing to happen in the future where someone is really injured,” she said. “We have such a great community and I don’t want anyone to suffer.
“It highlights an issue we have in the area.”
Elijah was injured on the Pink Rocks reef and fellow surfers got him to shore before calling for help.
The NSW Ambulance Service says paramedics arrived within five minutes of the triple 0 call and requested help to transport the patient. A spokesperson said advice was sought from two doctors and the paramedic responsible for deploying an ambulance helicopter.
“On the basis that the patient was not suffering from neurological impairment, State Emergency Service Officers were tasked to assist the paramedics,” the spokesperson said.
Moruya SES controller Alan Mitchell said his crew was called an hour after the first triple 0 call, at 9.48 am, and drove under lights and siren, arriving in Harbour Parade 20 minutes later.
It took another 15 minutes to reach the scene “at a fast trot”, carrying a Stokes rescue litter.
“We still had a fair hike to get to the incident scene and our directions were not too accurate,” Mr Mitchell said.
Nine people were involved in what proved “a long and difficult carry” back to Harbour Parade, taking it in turns to rest, with paramedics overseeing the patient’s head.
“Our normal carry would be 100 or 200 metres,” Mr Mitchell said.
“This was just under two kilometres. The issue was fatigue. One of our members was supremely fit, he carried most of the way, but the rest of us needed breaks.
“We would put the litter down and rotate. If you were carrying on the left side, with your right arm, you would change to carry on the other side.
“We were carrying along the sand and over the rocks and the tide was coming in.
“NSW Ambulance did the assessment that we could carry the person up before the island became cut off.”
Mr Mitchell said, after 200 metres, he had considered calling extra SES members but opted for Elijah’s fellow surfers.
“They were strong and willing,” he said. “They had observed the first 200 metres and fitted in under our direction.”
“It was important to get the young boy out as quickly as possible to medical assistance and before the island was cut off.”
A NSW Ambulance spokesperson said protocols ensured its helicopters were kept free for life threatening situations.
Meanwhile, “NSW police are responsible for the activation of rescue resources, including the Westpac Rescue helicopter,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the Westpac helicopter lacked “a pre-hospital patient care capability” and “the logistics of flying the patient the short distance, compared to road ambulance, would have increased the time before the patient reached the hospital”.
However, Mr Leahy said the Westpac team could provide immediate care.
“We have an excellent relationship with local ambulance officers, but the ambulance service will not call us, even as first responders, because we have no contract with (them).
“There are numerous occasions when we can provide the assistance, but we are not tasked by the ambulance coordination centre.
“We are a fast, responsive helicopter with highly trained crews who can provide the initial care of any patient, irrespective of whether they are in the water or on land, until ambulance arrives.”
Broulee surf life saving official Geoff Wells rejected the claim that crews were on the scene. He said patrols did not start until 1pm on Saturday and “there is no way we had anyone down there in an official capacity”, however off duty volunteers may have been nearby and gone to help.