A pair of combat helicopters from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station flew to the rescue Monday when five infants from Northridge Hospital Medical Center had to be evacuated to Orange County because of earthquake damage to a neonatal ward.
Emergency teams from UCI Medical Center in Orange and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills accompanied the Marines during the hastily arranged midafternoon flights.
The babies were the last of 22 evacuated from the Northridge neonatal intensive care unit after Monday morning's 6.6 magnitude earthquake cracked the nursery and sent some incubators toppling over, some with newborns inside. Most of the other infants, none of whom were injured in the temblor, found room at hospitals in the Los Angeles area.
Dr. Douglas Cunningham, neonatology director at Saddleback, said that when the emergency teams arrived at Northridge, they found the babies being watched over protectively by nurses who held them tightly with each aftershock.
"We found them wrapped in blankets and huddled together under a counter for safety in the hospital's emergency room," said Dr. Jack Sills, director of the neonatal intensive care unit at UCI Medical Center.
UCI officials said they worked all day to arrange the airlift, which departed about 2:30 p.m. Soon after the earthquake, all commercial helicopters large enough to accommodate portable incubators were already deployed to other rescues.
"Someone said, 'Why don't we call the Marines?' " Sills recalled. He said he was surprised at how quickly the request went up the military chain of command and was granted.
"This is a first for us," said Capt. Chris Heid, one of the pilots who flew the two UH-1N Huey helicopters. "We haven't rescued babies before."
Two of the babies were taken to UCI Medical Center and three went to Saddleback.
Power was out at Northridge Hospital and the elevators were not working, Heid said, so the helicopters did not land on the hospital roof. Instead they landed in the parking lot of a Pic 'N' Save store next to the hospital.
Before they whisked the babies away for the 30- to 40-minute helicopter flights, the medical teams left notes and maps behind for the children's parents. By the time the last helicopter landed at Saddleback at 5 p.m., some parents were already following in their cars.
The doctors and nurses on the evacuation teams said the infants seemed to have no qualms about taking their first flight. They were peaceful despite the deafening noise of the rotor blades and the vibrations seemed to calm them.
"One of them slept the whole way," Cunningham said. "Others sucked on pacifiers. But when we landed and shut down the motors, they all woke up and cried vigorously."