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‘No trouble at all': Calif. helicopter crew rescues crash victim

Sonoma County rescuers were lowered to reach the victim down a 200-foot ravine

By Amanda Bartlett

SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — A woman was airlifted from a cliff on the west side of Mount Tamalpais Wednesday after driving 200 feet into a ravine and crashing, leaving her vehicle teetering on the edge of the rocky hillside while she waited for help, officials said.

“The only thing that stopped her was a tree,” tactical flight officer Larry Matelli, a member of the crew that performed the rescue, told SFGATE Thursday morning.

The footage shared by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office isn’t for the faint of heart, showing the team grasping a 200-foot-long rope and plummeting deep into the redwoods to reach the woman and hoist her up to safety. The flight crew running the department’s Henry-1 emergency helicopter unit monitors 30 different agencies across the Bay Area and offered assistance when it heard initial reports of the crash near Panoramic Highway and the Pantoll Ranger Station from the Marin County Fire Department, Matelli said.

“Knowing that area from previous rescues, it’s very, very rough terrain and steep conditions,” he said. “As soon as we heard that call, we said we could stop down there to help.”

The Henry-1 helicopter unit trains daily and averages between 50 and 70 rescues per year, from hikers clinging to cliffsides — including the one at Battery Alexander in Mill Valley in March — to swimmers drowning in oceans and rivers, as well as other medical emergencies on trails. It took the unit about 20 minutes to fly from the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, where the helicopter is stationed, to the scene of the crash. Fire personnel had already located the vehicle, but Matelli had concerns as to how the team was going to perform in the rescue.

“We weren’t sure if we could make it down there because the trees are so tall,” he said.

Hovering just 10 feet over the thick brush, the Henry-1 eventually landed on a ridgeline overlooking the ocean. After coordinating with the incident commander, they decided to deploy a longline system, utilizing the rope to reach the woman and place her in a hot seat rescue device — what Matelli described as “kind of a little jacket” that hooks onto the collection plate, a ring-shaped mechanism that sits at the bottom of the rope. They gave her a helmet to strap onto her head, and up they went.

“What a trip,” she says in the video over the roar of the helicopter, appearing to have a good sense of humor about it all. “Thanks, you guys. I’m so sorry for all this trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” a crew member quips in response.

Matelli said that in those intense moments of a rescue, he usually tries to bring up something positive to help the person stay as calm and relaxed as possible.

“Obviously, dangling from the bottom of a helicopter is very stressful, especially when you just crashed a car down the hill,” he said with a chuckle. “But hey, at least you get to see some pretty cool scenery.”

The paramedic in the helicopter determined the unnamed woman’s injuries were minor, and she was subsequently taken to an ambulance but seemed to be in stable condition. As for her car?

“That’s going to be totaled,” Matelli said. “It went pretty far down the ravine. If not for that tree, she probably would have continued all the way down, and it could have been a different story. She could have not been able to walk away from it.”

California Highway Patrol is investigating the cause of the crash, Matelli said.

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