Medical helicopters nowhere near Marysville Pilchuck shootings, records show

SEATTLE — Top leaders at UW Medicine used the Marysville Pilchuck High School shootings to disparage the competence of counterparts at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, and for five months they withheld records that disprove a key premise of their criticism, an investigation by The Daily Herald has found.

Internal emails show that only hours passed before UW Medicine officials began second-guessing why four gravely wounded victims of the Oct. 24 school shootings were taken to Providence instead of being flown by Airlift Northwest helicopters to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the region's top trauma center. Harborview and the helicopter ambulance service are part of UW Medicine, the sprawling health-care system governed by the University of Washington.

Harborview and Airlift Northwest repeatedly have claimed that helicopters were hovering over Marysville Pilchuck when paramedics waved them off. But flight logs containing detailed tracking data show that two helicopters dispatched to help that morning were both 27 miles away — one above north Seattle and the other over Burlington in Skagit County. The latter one was first in the air, leaving Bellingham minutes after the shooting.

At those distances, it likely would have taken at least another 30 minutes for the helicopters to reach the high school, land, load and then transport the teenagers to Harborview. Instead, the victims were raced to Providence by ground ambulance — trips that took 12 minutes or less.

Airlift Northwest previously provided the media with timelines that contradict data in its own flight logs. UW Medicine used those timelines in urging the state Department of Health to review the Marysville triage decisions.

On Thursday, UW Medicine officials acknowledged that the newly released flight logs are correct and that no helicopters were hovering over the high school when the decision was made to transport victims by ground.

They offered no explanation for the earlier misleading information, nor did they explain why nothing had been done to set the record straight. UW Medicine did not, for example, share the facts of helicopter locations at a private meeting with Providence and emergency responders, held in part to discuss Harborview's complaints.

Late Thursday, UW Medicine released a statement that said, in part: “We continue to have ongoing discussions with our Snohomish county colleagues on best practices to ensure that the Snohomish community always has access to the most appropriate care in accordance with state trauma guidelines.”

While The Daily Herald awaited release of the records, UW Medicine claimed that patient privacy prevented them from releasing the flight data requested five months ago, even though no patients were transported.

University of Washington public records officials recently decided to release the flight logs and emails in compliance with state public records law.

The records made available so far reveal that Harborview's chief health system officer, Johnese Spisso, and the hospital's chief of trauma, Dr. Eileen Bulger, both were prominent in behind-the-scenes criticism of first responders in Snohomish County.

To read the extended story on The Daily Herald’s investigation and see relevant UW Medicine emails and timelines of the events, go to heraldnet.com and search for “medical helicopters.”