JASPER, Alabama [October 12, 2014] – For a few hours Saturday morning, Cameron Padbury wasn’t sure he would ever see his three young children again.
A paramedic for 18 years, it wasn’t the first life-and-death situation the 37-year-old Jasper man found himself in. But it was, by far, one of the most unusual, and one with potentially explosive consequences.
For eight hours and in close quarters, Padbury kept vigil beside his 62-year-old patient, a man with a 40mm practice grenade lodged in his thigh. Padbury and other paramedics in the parked ambulance outside of UAB’s emergency room were told to keep the patient as still as possible or they might not live to see another sunrise.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking. It was an intense experience,” Padbury said. “From what they were telling us, if he moved the right way it could go off and we could all die.”
Padbury, the Walker County supervisor for Regional Paramedic Services, was one of several to take care of the man inside the ambulance while experts decided how best to resolve the problem.
Authorities praised the paramedics, along with the U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist, who would eventually remove the grenade from the victim’s leg. The practice grenades, experts said, will fire and travel up to several hundred meters.
“The Jasper paramedics stayed with the guy all night and saved his life,” said Dave Hyche, a Birmingham supervisor with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Had it been a high explosive, it could have taken that ambulance apart.”
“It was extremely heroic,” Hyche said. “Nobody knew this wasn’t live. Removing it could have easily killed everyone there.”
Padbury recounted the more than eight-hour ordeal for AL.com.
It began when Regional Paramedic Services received a call from Walker Baptist Medical Center in Jasper saying they had a patient with object in his leg and he needed transfer to a Level 1 trauma center. The patient, whose name hasn’t been released by authorities, had been driven to the hospital by a private vehicle.
“I think my first response was, ‘You called me here and he’s got explosives in his leg?”’ Padbury said.
When paramedics arrived, the man told them a 40 mm grenade went off while it was in his lap. “He thought it was a novelty round,” Padbury said. “He was taking it apart. As he was twisting, the gunpowder ignited and shot into his thigh.”
The hospital had taken x-rays, and workers there believed it was only the casing or shrapnel embedded in the man’s thigh. “We felt like he was critical because he had a large object in a dangerous place, it was close to a lot of arteries,” Padbury said. “I decided to ride with the crew because his blood pressure was low and it was going to be touch-and-go.”
Padbury and other paramedics didn’t initially see the wound. It already had been treated with a pressure bandage to control the bleeding. Walker Baptist notified UAB to set up the trauma transfer.
As they neared Birmingham, paramedics called UAB to tell them they were about 10 minutes away. That’s when they found out there had been a change of plans.
“They had a BPD bomb tech look at the x-ray and he said he was confident it was the actual projectile,” Padbury said. “You could tell it was the actual grenade.”
“They directed us not to come into the ER,” he said. “They had set up a safe zone outside.”
“We parked outside the ER with everything barricaded off,” Padbury said. “They had us stationed where it would cause minimal damage and no civilian casualties in case it went off. Only those of us in the ambulance might die.”
It was about 11 p.m. when they arrived, and that is where they would stay until just before 7 a.m. the following day. As soon as they arrived at the hospital and were briefed on the situation, Padbury ordered his paramedics out of the ambulance.
“I told my crew to get out and go across the street to the safe zone,” Padbury said.
“But the bomb squad felt it would be in our best interest to have two paramedics in there taking care of the patient,” he said. Another Regional Paramedic Services employee, Tim Brown, was already at UAB Hospital from a previous run so he joined Padbury in the ambulance.”He sat with me in the truck for several hours,” he said.
By this time, law enforcement officials from at least a half dozen agencies were on the scene including Birmingham and Jasper police, ATF, FBI, the State Bureau of Investigation. Both Birmingham police and the SBI had bomb squads on site.
Hyche said authorities spent all night not knowing whether the device was a high explosive grenade. Nobody knew, he said, until the Army specialist removed the device in the ambulance.
Authorities had immediately gotten in touch with the U.S. Army EOD and it was decided a staff sergeant from Fort Benning in Georgia would come to the scene. They first tried to helicopter him in, but it was taking too long to find a pilot and helicopter, Padbury said.
That’s when they decided to drive, and the EOD staff sergeant was escorted to Birmingham with a state trooper escort. While they waited, Padbury and Brown talked with the patient.
“He was conscious the whole time. We tried to keep him relaxed as much as we could,” he said. “At first he was agitated that we couldn’t take him into the hospital. He didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.”
As his agitation grew, so did his movement. “We were having trouble keeping him still,” Padbury said.
At that point, Padbury told the man why it was important he not move around. “We told him that he really did have an actual grenade in his leg,” he said. “We were told the only reason it didn’t go off was because it didn’t rotate enough times or go enough distance.”
The man was obviously somber when he heard the news. “He got pretty upset,” Padbury said. “He understood there was a possibility he might not make it through.”
“He asked us to contact his family, and we did. We left messages for them,” Padbury said. “We also thought some may have made it to UAB by then, so I sent word to me crew to go and try to find them.”
Though tense, Padbury said he and the others are used to intense assignments. “When you do this work, there’s a switch you have to flip. You find a way to disconnect from the situation,” he said. “You usually handle it with humor at the time, and then maybe get upset when it’s all over and done.”
The EOD specialist arrived shortly before dawn. Efforts to obtain his name and reach him for comment weren’t successful.
The staff sergeant was a combat medic. “He explained to us what he was going to do,” Padbury said. “He gave me the option to get out of the ambulance. I wasn’t going to leave my patient.”
Another one of Padbury’s paramedics, Brian Tolbert, had been outside of the ambulance much of the night, handling things for Padbury. As they prepared to remove the grenade, Tolbert joined Padbury and the EOD specialist in the ambulance.
“The EOD gave us body armor to put on inside the ambulance while we removed the object,” he said. “We stayed with him.”
One of the UAB doctors came to the ambulance and made an incision in the man’s leg, Padbury said. Calmly and confidently, the staff sergeant removed the grenade by hand, careful to not twist or turn it.
The procedure took 30 to 45 minutes.The device was removed – it was about the size of a half-dollar coin – and was placed in containment.
Padbury said it was a relief when it was over. He had not been able to contact his children overnight, but had gotten several messages to his girlfriend, who also works in EMS, to let her know he was OK.
It was only later he dealt with the emotions that were sure to come. “It was a little upsetting afterwards and I realized I might not have made it home,” he said. ” But everything went fine and nobody got hurt.”
“We deal with weird situations all the time,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how often paramedics and firefighters put our lives on the line. But that’s part of it, and we know that going in.”
As for being called a hero, Padbury downplayed the notion and the title “I don’t know about all that,” he said. “We were just doing our job.”
We honor you, Cameron Padbury.