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Ambulance delays, confusion led to longer wait time for Tybee lightning strike victim

Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 3:14 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 8, 2021 at 6:36 PM EDT
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TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WTOC) - It took twice as long than a typical response time for an ambulance to reach a teenage girl who was struck by lightning on Tybee Island.

The incident unfolded in the early afternoon of what was a crowded Saturday for the island.

WTOC Investigates confirmed the timeline of events on Friday - more than two weeks after filing an open records request for the dispatch call log. The City of Tybee provided only a copy of the police incident report, which detailed the response times that afternoon and also pointed to confusion among first responders involving a helicopter transport.

Chatham Emergency Services CEO Chuck Kearns called the ambulance delay a fluke.

WTOC Investigates has reconstructed the timeline of events based on the initial reporting, interviews and a copy of the police incident report.

A 15-year-old girl visiting from Alabama was on the beach with her family on Saturday afternoon when the weather turned. A fast-moving thunderstorm brought heavy rain and thunder with it.

The 911 call came in around 2:37 p.m. on June 12: A female struck by lightning near the Tybee Pier on 17th Street.

Within seven minutes, Tybee Police arrived on scene where lifeguards and fire personnel already had started CPR in a nearby parking garage to shelter from the storm.

“The victim was not responsive and appeared to not have a pulse according to fire.”

The estimated time of arrival for an ambulance was about 35 minutes.

At 2:55 p.m., “a decision was made to load the victim into a truck;” to meet the ambulance on the way, the report stated.

Tybee Police noted: Traffic headed off the island was “heavy and at a standstill.”

Normally, an ambulance is stationed just off the island at the Lazaretto Creek Boat Ramp or Ft. Pulaski, but on that day the ambulance was not there because it was transporting another patient, and the back up ambulance had not yet arrived, said Chuck Kearns, CEO of Chatham Emergency Services, a private company that provides EMS services to cities and areas within Chatham County.

At 3:01 pm (24 minutes into the police call), Tybee first responders intercepted the ambulance at 1105 E. Highway 80 near a pizza restaurant, the report stated.

That’s where some confusion unfolded.

The Tybee Police report said a helicopter transport was in route, so the ambulance drove farther onto the island to the helipad at the Tybee Island Lighthouse.

It arrived at 3:18 pm - 41 minutes into the call.

“After being at the helipad for approximately five minutes, EMS left the scene with lights and siren,” the report said, adding that the helicopter was canceled due to limited room.

The helicopter will not transport a patient if CPR is being done, explained Chatham Emergency Services CEO Chuck Kearns, in a brief phone conversation on Friday.

From there, the ambulance traveled to Memorial Hospital, which is about a 16 mile drive into Savannah. At the hospital is where 15-year-old Maiah Mitchell was pronounced dead.

During a brief phone call with Kearns on Friday, he said Chatham Emergency Services strives for a 12 minute response time. He also called the response time on June 12 a fluke. In an email this evening, he said: “I said this was an extraordinary rare set of circumstances, or words to that extent, but I never said ‘fluke.’

In a statement this evening, Kearns said Chatham EMS’ Tybee-based, paramedic ambulance has responded to 1,228 emergency calls with an average response time of 6.6 minutes. When WTOC originally asked for dispatch call logs from the June 12th event, Kearns said Chatham Emergency Services is a private company and not subject to public information requests.

WTOC has requested additional EMS response time records through the City of Tybee, but has not yet received those records.

EMS response times have long been discussed over the years with no immediate solution. At one point, there was talk about widening the mostly two-lane highway out to the island, but the project is not funded.

Chatham Emergency Services has an agreement with the city of Tybee for EMS services. There is one ambulance stationed right around the corner from the YMCA on Tybee, Kearns said. Additionally, as a backup - another ambulance is usually parked at the entrance to Fort Pulaski or the Lazaretto Creek Boat Ramp.

Tybee beaches have seen a record number of crowds so this year. City officials implemented traffic controls earlier this year because of the crowds coming onto the island.

Tybee City Manager Sean Gillen did not answer phone calls for this report, but responded in a text message on Tuesday to say he was on vacation all week and unavailable for comment.

The Tybee City Council will discuss a 90-day agreement with Chatham Emergency Services to temporarily manage its fire services. Nothing in the agreement mentions a change to the ambulance staging location.

The following statement was sent to WTOC by Kearns late this afternoon:

“The thoughts and prayers of all the EMTs, Paramedics and Firefighters of Chatham Emergency Services go out to the family and friends of the teenager who was recently killed by a fatal bolt of lightning on Tybee Island. We are deeply saddened by her loss. The lightning came from a rapidly developing storm which left beachgoers little time to evacuate the area.

The Tybee ambulance was off the island engaged in a call and transport. As is our normal procedure, the next closest ambulance was already dispatched for coverage on Tybee. The three person EMS crew had not made it out to Tybee at the moment of the lightning strike. A paramedic supervisor also responded to the call, assisting the ambulance on scene.

When asked for an estimated time of arrival, a dispatcher gave an incorrect answer, leading first responders to believe they would have a much longer response time than occurred. Upon making patient contact, our Paramedics and EMTs took over the patient’s care. They continued CPR en-route, while rushing the patient to the hospital where she passed away.

Although we deal with life and death situations daily, we feel tremendous heartache when a young person leaves the world too soon. Our hearts are heavy, especially those of the two paramedics and two EMTs who worked feverously with Tybee’s First Responders to save her life.”

A previous version of this report misstated that there is not an ambulance typically stationed on Tybee Island. There is one near the YMCA, according to Kearns.

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