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An Air Force rescue vehicle crash left two airmen permanently disabled

An Air Force firefighter was honored for his treatment of a critically injured passenger and a quick-thinking evacuation plan after the rollover accident.
pararescue rescue vehicle crash
The driver in a 2023 rollover-crash of an Air Force SRVT-SXV rescue vehicle was not qualified to be driving it, was driving at least twice as fast as was safe and was not wearing a seatbelt. Both the driver and a passenger were permantently disabled in the crash. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo.

An Air Force officer and NCO both suffered catastrophic injuries when the burly off-road rescue vehicle they were riding in rolled over and ejected them during a training event in the Northern Mariana Islands in early 2023. An accident investigation board found the driver, a special warfare captain, was driving too fast, had no training in the vehicle and told the enlisted photographer riding with him not to wear her seatbelt “because it was only a 5-minute drive” when he crashed the SRTV-SXV Tactical Vehicle, a brawny dune buggy used by Air Force pararescue teams in harsh terrain.

The driver, a Tactical Air Control Party, or TACP, captain stationed in Hawaii, was paralyzed from the waist down. The photographer, a staff sergeant with the 1st Combat Camera Squadron, eventually had her right leg amputated above the knee along with suffering a broken pelvis and extensive internal bleeding . The accident occurred during COPE North, a 2-week multi-national exercise centered around Guam in February 2023.

But there was some heroism in the crash’s chaotic aftermath. A junior Air Force firefighter who was among the first on the scene of the accident was later recognized with the Air Force’s top award for firefighter heroism. Senior Airman Ethan Embrey was first to realize the dire condition of the photographer needed more medical care than was available on the island and radioed the local airfield with a request to hold an unrelated aircraft on the ground so that she could be taken on an emergency flight to Guam.

firefighter air force heroism
Senior Airman Embrey, a firefighter assigned to the 2023 COPE North exercise, was awarded the Senior Master Sergeant Robert A. McAllister Award for Firefighter Heroism, the service’s top award for valor in action for firefighters, for his response to a 2023 vehicle accident that left two airmen permanently disabled. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Patrick Boyle.

An Air Force investigation board that reviewed the accident did not directly assign blame or fault for the February 2023 accident, but the findings make clear that the captain behind the wheel was acting far outside of safety and training rules and may have lied to investigators about the incident.

The officer told investigators that a senior pararescue operator, or PJ, in charge of the SRTV had given him two hours of “familiarization training” on the vehicle the day before the crash, “but that it was not documented” in the officer’s training records. However, the senior PJ told the board that he did not train anyone on the vehicle during COPE North, and that he did not believe the captain had received any training on the SRTV during COPE North or in the weeks prior.

A Pacific Air Forces spokesperson did not say if the crash had resulted in disciplinary actions. Officials released the report June 14 after being completed in April.

“The Air Force does not disclose information regarding disciplinary actions,” the spokesperson told Task & Purpose in an emailed statement. “The purpose of an Air Force Ground Accident Investigation Board is to inquire into the facts surrounding Air Force ground accidents, and to gather and preserve evidence for use in litigation, claims, disciplinary actions, administrative proceedings and for other purposes.

Speeding on a “World War II” road

The accident occurred as the TACP piloted the SRTV-SXV — short for, the Search And Rescue Tactical Vehicle-Side by Vehicle — on a narrow, overgrown road towards Chulu Beach on the northern end of Tinian, a small island roughly 160 miles north of Guam. The TACP was on his way to join the Pararescue team for a training event.

The photographer was along to get pictures of the training for Air Force public affairs. As is typical in accident investigations, no one involved in or interviewed after the accident was identified in the report.

The event was a so-called Full Mission Profile, of FMP, in which the pararescue team would retrieve a down pilot hiding somewhere near Chulu Beach. To reach the pilot, the PJ team would be dropped from helicopters into the waters off the beach, then come ashore and locate the pilot.

“The team would encounter enemy contact, and [the TACP] would coordinate close air support fires from MQ-9 reaper drones and MH-60S helicopters,” the report said. However, the TACP “was not qualified on the planned insertion and extraction techniques and would join the [PJs] when they arrived on the beach.”

crash srtv air force pararescue
Photos of the crashed Air Force SRTV from the mishap investigation report.

However, to reach the beach from the Tinian airfield that afternoon, the TACP chose to drive himself and the photographer in the SRTV-SXV, which the PJ team had brought with them from the 31st Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Japan. A civilian rental vehicle had already departed to take the “pilot” to their hiding spot.

The officer was not trained or authorized to drive the bulky rescue vehicle and the photographer told investigators she had never ridden in one. When she sat in the passenger seat, she realized immediately that she did not know how to buckle its safety harness. But, she told the board, the officer told her “that because it was only a 5-minute drive, they did not need to wear seatbelts,” the report found.

RIding in an SRTV requires “ankle-covering boots, pants, gloves, eye protection, helmet, and seatbelts,” the report said, none of which the driver passed on to the photographer. 

The remote road to the beach was dilapidated, overgrown and had “not been improved or resurfaced since their original construction during World War II,” the report found. Foilage slapped the photographer’s face as they drove between 40 and 50 MPH, the board found. The photographer told investigators, “she developed a nervous feeling about the [vehicle’s] speed and made multiple requests to [the driver] that he slow down; however, [the captain] did not acknowledge or respond to those request.”

Though there was no posted speed limit on the little-used road, local police told investigators the top safe speed on the road was probably 15 MPH. The speed limit in all training areas on Guam, where the COPE North was based, is 35 MPH.

As they approached a turn to the beach, the driver claimed “an issue arose with the steering and [the photographer’s] side of the vehicle was in the brush, which prompted [him] to overcorrect then placing [his own] side of the vehicle into the brush.”

As they turned, the vehicle rolled over, ejecting both the driver and passenger. Both said they could not remember the exact moment of the crash.

SRTV is brawny but ‘twitchy’ to drive

The SRTV is a specialized vehicle made for Air Force special operations teams by BC Customs, a Utah vehicle maker. Though it is brawny and designed for difficult terrain, it is not easy or intuitive to drive, the report found. It has a very rapid steering system, which can be “locked out” in side-to-side motion with less than a full turn of the wheel. As a result, even small movements of the wheel can cause the vehicle to make large movements, particularly at high speeds.

 PJs told the board that driving it is “not user friendly” and the vehicle is “very different from other vehicles,” particularly at high speeds.

CB Customs describes the steering as “twitchy.”

pararescue rescue vehicle crash
The driver in a 2023 rollover-crash of an Air Force SRVT-SXV rescue vehicle was not qualified to be driving it, was driving at least twice as fast as was safe and was not wearing a seatbelt. Both the driver and a passenger were permantently disabled in the crash. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo.

In addition to its touchy steering, the SRTV is, perhaps counter-intuitively, prone to tipping. The size and shape of the body was built to fit on a V-22 Osprey, limiting its width. 

In testing on level concrete, the report said, the SRTV-SXV was prone to tip over if driven through average turns over 38 miles per hour. A modification to the wheels that some rescue teams installed themselves increased that point to 39 MPH, the report said, but Air Force officials recommended that teams not use those modifications due to increased wear and tear.

In response to Air Force concerns of the tipping, BC Custom suggested that the Air Force rollovers were not the result of vehicle deficiencies but were due to user error, the report said, due to a lack of understanding of the vehicle’s design and function and its intended purposes.

Whether or not the captain was given two hours of instruction, it would not have been enough. Pararescue team members were considered qualified to drive the SRTV-SXV, the report said, only after taking a five-day in-person course at the CB Custom’s Utah factory.

First Responder heroism

A local woman found the crash site and rushed to find officials, first encountering a unit of airfield firefighters, including Senior Airman Embrey. 

“Initially I thought it was a part of the exercise,” Embrey said in an Air Force release. “But when she told me that it was real, I hopped out the truck, grabbed my individual first aid kit, and headed to the scene.”

At the scene, Embrey said, both the driver and passenger were conscious. First responders had gathered around the driver, who was saying he could not feel his legs, with just a single guard with the photographer. “Only one person was helping her,” Embrey said.

“I told the security forces guard to check from head to waist as I was checking waist down to feet because I saw something protruding from her boot,” Embrey said. “Her bone broke through the skin on her ankle. I was getting ready to splint and package her leg when she said, ‘my stomach hurts.’ She already was expressing an altered mental status so I knew something was wrong.”

The stomach pain, he realized, might be an indication of internal bleeding.

“I saw a black spot on the right of her navel which is the earliest sign of internal bleeding,” said Embrey.

With no hospital on the island, Embrey knew she needed to get to Guam as soon as possible. He thought back to the airfield, where he knew a C-130 had just landed.

“I immediately call in that it’s internal bleeding and I tell them to hold the plane, as it was preparing to take off,” Embrey said. “She has to be on the plane that just landed.”

The C-130 held on the ground as Embrey and other responders rushed the photographer to the airfield in a truck.

“I was standing over her to make sure she didn’t shake on the truck bed,” said Embrey. During the trip, the woman lost pulses in her feet and arms, signs that she was going into shock from losing blood internally. “It was like a big ice cream scoop took out a chunk of her left thigh and instead of it gushing out it was feeding back into the stomach cavity.”

Once on the C-130, the woman was flown to Guam, from where she was quickly flown to Hawaii.

UPDATE: 6/18/2024; This article has been updated with comments from a Pacific Air Forces spokesperson.

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