Army instructors face punishment in 4 deaths

March 30, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Nine Army instructors will be disciplined for a series of blunders that led to the deaths of four soldiers from hypothermia during a Ranger training exercise in a Florida swamp last month.

The four trainees were immersed in water too cold, too deep and for too long, the Army said yesterday in announcing results of a six-week investigation of the incident.

During the desperate rescue mission, the Army revealed, a helicopter dropped the stretcher bearing one stricken trainee as it was hauling him out of the swamp.

"Below, in the swamp, the group saw the stretcher descend out of the blackness, go vertical, and then fall from a height of between 10 and 20 feet," said the Army report.

The victim landed on his feet, was resuscitated and placed back onto the stretcher, the report said. He later died of hypothermia.

In what at times resembled a tragic fiasco, a shortage of fuel delayed a rescue flight, the rotor wash from a helicopter swept three trainees downriver and a radio used for an SOS call was dropped into the water, rendering it useless.

The investigation blamed the deaths on failure of judgment, insufficient awareness of the dangers and lack of supervision by the trainers.

Maj. Gen. John W. Hendrix, commander of the Fort Benning, Ga., base camp for the Ranger Training Battalion, said he hasn't decided what action to take against the instructors, whom he declined to identify. But punishment could range from counseling or letters of reprimand to expulsion from the service.

He said there were no grounds for criminal charges against the instructors, all of whom have been suspended.

He said the Rangers would develop new rescue procedures, impose tighter controls on swamp exercises and improve training standards.

The men died Feb. 15 and 16 during a grueling training patrol through swamps at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The dead were Capt. Milton Palmer, 27, of Fishers, Ind.; Sgt. Norman Tillman, 28, of Fort Bragg, N.C.; and 2nd Lts. Curt G. Sansoucie, 23, of Rochester, N.H., and Spencer D. Dodge, 25, of Stanley, N.Y.

During the exercise, some students were in the water for up to five hours, although Army regulations limit the length of immersion in water of temperatures in the 50-55 degree range to three hours.

An Army investigation of their deaths listed these critical errors:

* Failure to physically check the temperature of the water or its depth as the three training platoons departed on their exercise;

* Failure of an instructor to correct a navigational error, allowing trainees to proceed into hazardous territory and deep, rising water. This complicated the rescue and evacuation when hypothermia struck;

* The decision, once the trainees entered deep water, to press ahead looking for high ground rather than return to their boats.

"The water was from chest to neck-deep on all of the men. Some were swimming occasionally, and intermittently went completely under," investigators reported. The Ranger training regulations limit immersion in cold water to five minutes.

* Failure to respond to the early signs of hypothermia, and the decision to build rope bridges that committed them to proceeding farther into the swamp.

Ranger instructors, who accompanied the soldiers, were responsible for assessing the condition of trainees with hypothermia and calling for a helicopter or evacuating them by land if necessary.

As hypothermia struck, an evacuation helicopter was called, but it was hampered by thick foliage, misleading light signals and a shortage of fuel. It evacuated two victims.

The body of the fourth victim was recovered the next day.

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