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Ambulance response delayed in fatal Tybee lightning strike

TYBEE ISLAND – It took more than twice as long as normal for an ambulance to reach an Alabama girl who died after being struck by lightning on a coastal Georgia island in June.

Records obtained by WTOC-TV show police received the call at 2:37 p.m. on June 12 that 15-year-old Maiah Mitchell had been hit on Tybee Island near Savannah. But the ambulance didn't leave for a hospital with Mitchell until after 3:18 p.m.

The biggest cause of delay was that the ambulance normally assigned to the island by Chatham Emergency Services had picked up another patient and was taking the patient somewhere else. Another ambulance was rotating into position, but had not yet arrived.

Firefighters and lifeguards reached Mitchell, who was from Bessemer, Alabama, within seven minutes, finding she had no pulse. After being told the nearest ambulance was 35 minutes away, they decided to load Mitchell into a truck. Traffic leaving the island was “heavy and at a standstill," according to a Tybee Island police report.

Once the ambulance did arrive, it went to a location where paramedics believed a helicopter would transport Mitchell to a hospital. But the transport never took place. Kearns said a helicopter won't carry a patient undergoing CPR.

“This was an extraordinarily rare set of circumstances,” Kearns said.

Mitchell was pronounced dead at Memorial Hospital in Savannah, 16 miles (26 kilometers) from Tybee Island.

Kearns said the Tybee-based ambulance has responded to 1,228 emergency calls with an average response time of 6.6 minutes. WTOC-TV said it has requested additional response time records from Tybee Island, but has not yet received them.

“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,” Kearns said in a statement. “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.”

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

EMS response times have been discussed previously with no solutions reached. Tybee Island contracts with Chatham Emergency Services for ambulance coverage and is considering hiring the private nonprofit to manage its fire response as well.


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