LifeFlight Doctor’s daring double winch off cargo ship

LifeFlight Doctor Koert Jan Schonewille performed his first ever offshore winch rescue this week to save two men who were seriously injured on board the cargo ship Shanghai Spirit, 32 nautical miles (65 km) off the coast of Rockhampton.

Despite notching up seven years’ air-medical experience on board LifeFlight and other air-medical helicopters across Queensland, the 40-year-old doctor says this mission was his most ‘challenging’ to date.

On Monday 30th January, the LifeFlight Doctor and the team on board the RACQ Capricorn helicopter (Pilot Chris Manns, Winch Operator Corey Baker and Aircrewman Garth Snaidero) flew to help the Chinese nationals who were painting the walls of the ship’s cargo hold when the scaffolding gave way. 

They plummeted 14 metres and the heavy scaffolding came crashing down on top of them.

“Their injuries were very severe,” Dr Schonewille said.

“One man suffered serious multi-trauma injuries including broken ribs and pelvis, fractured femur, diaphragmatic rupture and a contained splenic bleed. 

“The second man was in a stable condition, but suffered a fractured vertebrae in his spine.”

The men, both aged 42, had been retrieved from the lower deck by the ship’s staff when the helicopter arrived. 

Their best chance of survival was immediate treatment by a critical care doctor and an emergency air-medical flight back to a mainland hospital.

Twenty minutes after leaving the Rockhampton base, Dr Koert Jan Schonewille was hovering 30 metres above the ship’s deck.

This would be his first ever winch rescue out to sea.

Dr Schonewille was lowered from the hovering helicopter, suspended on a thin wire 30 metres in the air alongside a Capricorn Rescue crew member - ocean as far as the eye could see.

“I’d only been involved in four winch rescues previously, but they were all in dense rainforest or bushland. This was something completely different,” he said.

“I was winched down the wire and immediately got to work stabilising the first patient.

“I provided pain relief, intravenous access and prepared him with a neck brace and pelvic binder on the vacuum mattress so he could be winched up into the helicopter.”

While being stabilised, the patient was flown to Rockhampton Hospital for emergency surgery.

But the mission didn’t end there.

They had to fly the 20 minutes back to the ship to airlift the second patient. 

With only one vacuum mattress on board, Dr Schonewille fashioned a makeshift mattress from pillows and blankets on board the boat to keep the patient steady and their spine supported during the winch. 

He calls it his ‘MacGyver moment’ – a reference to the 1980s TV action show about a secret agent who was renowned for improvising with equipment in the field to get out of trouble. 

By this time, the crew was now racing against the fading light. 

It was 6.30pm and the crew had just half an hour to treat the patient, winch him on board and fly the 20 minutes to Rockhampton Hospital before ‘last light’.

Thanks to the skill of all involved, the crew arrived with minutes to spare, delivering the patient to hospital for further treatment.

“Both patients are now in a stable condition, which is a very satisfying outcome for me,” he said.

Dr Schonewille has worked as a LifeFlight Doctor since 2009 on board the LifeFlight helicopters on the Gold Coast, Toowoomba and Brisbane, the LifeFlight Lear Jet in Townsville and the RACQ Capricorn Helicopter in Rockhampton.

In his downtime, the avid aviation enthusiast flies fixed-wing light planes and engine-less gliders.

“Being a LifeFlight Doctor is my dream job,” he said.