North Flight EMS Quick Actions Following Manton Motel Explosion Helped Save Lives


North Flight EMS paramedic and Coordinator of Ground Operations in Wexford County Aaron Sogge, EMT-P, woke up with his cell phone app toning out a fire call. It was 4:07 am on May 17.

The message from Wexford County Dispatch quickened his pace. “Explosion in a room, unknown injuries.” In addition to his North Flight role, Sogge volunteers on the Cedar Creek Fire Department. His first thoughts were his firefighter helmet was needed most.

A few miles west of town, North Flight on-call EMT Jason Nelson, too, woke up as tones sounded, threw on his clothes and headed out the door for the North Flight ambulance barn in Manton. Paramedic James Schuneman, EMT-P, and EMT Sonja Schuneman were also on call and headed for their vehicle. Other North Flight off-duty paramedics and EMTs who also serve on area fire departments were scrambling to get out their doors.

With just a quarter mile between his home and Green Mill Motel , Sogge arrived 11 minutes after the first tones to find much of the structure engulfed in flames. He saw a large crowd of people on the front lawn, and a woman and boy walking onto the lawn and collapsing, severely burned. He knew then his EMS role was required and assumed EMS command of the incident.

“While assessing the two patients a bystander ran up and stated that there was a young boy in the lawn to the northeast of the motel, not doing well, who was also burned,” Sogge said. “At that time I radioed to Wexford Central Dispatch requesting three helicopters and to notify Munson Healthcare Cadillac Hospital ER that they were going to receive three priority one burn patients.”

Central Dispatch responded that there was a 35-minute estimate for the first helicopter as Nelson pulled up driving an EMS unit based in Manton. Sogge sent Nelson to evaluate the boy reported on the front lawn as he continued to assess the two patients in front of him.

The Schunemans pulled up in their own vehicle and began to assist. Nelson soon ran by with the boy in his arms and Sogge sent him and James Schuneman to Cadillac. Sogge’s thoughts were to get the boy to Cadillac for stabilization of his airway and injuries before a flight to a downstate burn center.

Sogge sent Sonja Schuneman to the Manton North Flight ambulance barn for another rig as North Flight 170, the on-duty crew from Cadillac Fire Department arrived with Paramedic Michelle Whitehead and a Cadillac firefighter. Paramedic Robert Stahl pulled up in his personal vehicle and Sogge ordered him and Whitehead to transport the older boy to Cadillac, again for stabilization of airway and injuries and a helicopter flight south.

Meanwhile the fire’s heat was becoming more intense and butane canisters could be heard exploding in the inferno. With the help of a deputy sheriff, Sogge put his female patient on a blanket and moved her closer to the road.

The Green Mill Motel was familiar to North Flight EMS staff. A once-thriving family-owned vacation stop for those headed north had transformed after the freeway bypassed the city in 2003 and the facility was sold. In more recent years, the facility became transitional housing and a spot for those down on their luck. EMS calls to the facility were routine.

Law enforcement investigation into the cause of the blast continues.

That morning, North Flight, and county rural fire departments focused on preserving life and property.

Radio traffic became clogged on the EMS frequency as people responded to the call. Sogge used a Sheriff Department deputy’s 800 hertz radio to message Central Dispatch to again alert Cadillac Hospital Emergency Department staff of the patients headed their way. As dispatchers worked through their protocol, the contact with the Emergency Department came as the first patient was almost at the door.

Meanwhile, Sonja Schuneman returned to the scene with an ambulance and Sogge ordered her and Medical First Responder Daniel Viox to transport the female patient to Cadillac and intercept with an ALS truck. Radio frequency issues meant their rig could not connect with the other truck and they drove as a basic life support unit to the hospital.

An older motel resident who had pulled the youngest boy out of the motel, was then reported collapsed. Sogge found him on the front lawn complaining of breathing difficulty. The patient had COPD, and Sogge wanted to send him to Munson Medical Center, but he refused to go there, insisting on going to Cadillac. Sogge sent him there in an ambulance with paramedic Mary Hyatt, telling her to stay with him until Emergency Department personnel could see him.

North Flight EMS Wexford County Manager Paul Owen credits the on-call staff in the region for saving lives.

“In an area where we are not staffed with an ALS truck on every corner, we have multiple people coming in, multiple paramedics in our time of need. We had no first responders injured, this was a horrific scene. When Aaron arrived explosions were still going off … several butane bottles were exploding.”

North Flight EMS Board member and Cadillac Emergency Department physician Shaun Ramsey, DO, credits Sogge and the first responders with giving the patients a fighting chance for life by sending them to Cadillac Hospital despite knowing they would overwhelm the ED.

“Our medical control trauma protocols say pretty much if it’s trauma in our region it is going to come up to Traverse City. There is a little caveat, that you go to the closest appropriate facility,” he said. “Making that call to go to Cadillac at least gave those patients a fighting chance because they would have lost their airway enroute somewhere between Manton and Traverse City. This is the perfect example of why you have to think on your feet when you are out there on the scene.”

North Flight EMS President Mark Deponio applauded the efforts by the first responders and North Flight EMS team.

"It is an honor to be part of an organization that is made up of people like Aaron and his colleagues," he said. “Our North Flight team is there to take care of all of us on our worst day - when we're injured or acutely sick. Their selfless and skilled work makes those worst days much better. We're fortunate, grateful, and proud of this team.”