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Relu Nica - Is it right to do your job?

Author: Relu Nica

In July 2003, I worked in the mountain rescue group in Curtea de Argeș.

It was snowing at the Capra hut and the temperature was below freezing at an altitude of 1700 meters. We receive an alarm - 6 people (3 boys and 3 girls) are lost on a southern ridge. Teams are quickly formed - some go to Lespezi-Florea-Podeanu and the others to Buda-Mușeteica-Piscu Negru. 

From an altitude of 1600m there was already a blanket of fog and visibility was a maximum of 2 meters. But we kept going, we didn't stop, we had to find them. The search lasted more than 24 hours without interruption - we crossed forests, alpine hollows and many rugged areas. The temperatures were consistently negative. The first day ended without any success. I needed rest, so we stopped late at night to sleep in a sheep pen. The next morning, we learned that the 6 would actually be on a northern ridge, at least 6 hours of fast walking from our location. Communication was slow, only by radio. There was no GSM signal at all in these areas. In the meantime, Nicolae Mustea, then head of the Sibiu mountain rescue team, managed to speak to one of the missing people. He put the information together and came to the conclusion that the area where the group was located was Muchia Albotei. We drove there. After about two hours of walking from the starting point, we found them!

3 of the group were on the ridge route and 3 others 60 meters lower. The place we were at was called Muchia Albotei - the height difference between the ridge, i.e. the crest, and the lower step is over 1000 meters! The three people who fell were standing on a ledge that had actually saved their lives - if they had gone any lower, they would certainly not be alive. One of the group in the valley had lost her way and was suspected of having a broken abdomen. We couldn't carry her. I was the only one with the special equipment to set up an abseil point - ice axe and hammer. 

We had to descend to her directly from the vertical, as there was a straight rock face. I set up the abseil rope to gain access to the victim. Colleagues from Sibiu descended to her with the vacuum stretcher (a stretcher with a special body of the victim). They held her on the stretcher and started to lower her down the slope. I and two other rescuers picked up the three who were still on the ridge. We had to descend from there, so we started to instruct them. After about 20 minutes of explanations, during which one of the girls seemed to be looking at the mines in confusion, I was told that she couldn't hear and couldn't speak! Relu, take care of a person who can't hear and doesn't speak and teach her to abseil for the first time in a critical situation...! With patience, a lot of attention and hard work, I managed to get them to an area from which they could move without help. I resumed my place in the formation, i.e. I provided the team that transported the stretcher with the victim. 

The stretcher with the injured girl was set down 800 m from the plain - almost 1 km from top to bottom! In the meantime, the colleagues responsible for communication came up with solutions: 

- A light helicopter would pick up the victim and we would move on alone. 

- or a military helicopter to pick us all up

- or tourists and rescuers.

The cloud cover was very low, so the first option was out of the question. An MI8 military helicopter was the next option (PHOTO). We all made our way to the edge of the forest. I carefully searched for the best entry area and stayed to signal the helicopter. We, the rescue team, were more than 10 hours away from the base in sleet, fog and wind after the 24 hours the day before. We were exhausted, wet and freezing. Some of us were already in the first stages of hypothermia. Our resources were soon exhausted. MI8 is a very large aircraft. We had no room in it to land normally, so it only touched the ground with the wheel. We were looking forward to boarding, the conditions were becoming increasingly unbearable. We knew once we were in the helicopter we would be safe! As the pilot balanced the aircraft on the control stick, we were told over the radio that 5 of us had no more room in the helicopter. This meant that the 5 of us would have to walk another 6 to 8 hours to get somewhere where they could be picked up by a car. I volunteered to walk back - I was pretty well equipped and morally I quickly accepted the situation. I just needed a rest and then I could be on my way.

We formed our group of “walkers”; and strategized. At that moment the helicopter door opened. We found out about why we didn't all have room - there were 5 cameramen inside, from 5 different TV stations, coming to film everything! I threw my helmet on the ground in annoyance! My gesture was noticed by the pilot, who saw me and the despair in my eyes. I knew I was going to handle it.

It's probably tough, but I'll survive. But the other colleagues were really freaked out... In military jargon, the pilot waved me off, not to talk on the radio, that he would pick us up. Within 7 minutes the helicopter was back - it had left the two injured people and the journalists in Sibiu, and it actually came for us, the other five. The flight back was one of the most fascinating of my life - it was the first time I'd flown right up to the tree line, the treetops bending through the rotor thrust. I asked the mechanic why the pilot was flying like that. The answer left me speechless: the pilot didn't have permission for the second flight and wanted to avoid being seen by the radar. It was only fair that those of us who have been flying for over 30 hours trying to find and save lives should risk our lives even further because we were so hungry for exclusivity and permissions...!

However, the pilot did right by the power he had at the time - he chose to break the rules to protect us. In my opinion, what he did was right. Others might have said he was wrong and they might even have blamed him.

Looking back now, it's clear to me that those journalists were making their job as they knew best. They certainly didn't have any intention of harming us. But I don't think they were aware of the situation - their presence in the helicopter could have led to a new story, one about the deaths of rescuers. I learned in the meantime how important it is to see more beyond today and tomorrow, to know what impact actions can have your actions now in the future. And to aim for the maximum out of every situation, it will never be today.

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