SHOT Show 2014: How one gunfight in 'paradise' may save officers' lives for years to come

A 501(c)3 called Project Triage was founded by Chief Chris Howell, who owes his life to a simple trauma kit — and the training he received on how to use it

On August 18, 2012, Chris Howell was responding to a robbery in progress call when he and a SWAT officer with him in his patrol vehicle were ambushed in a hail of gunfire. When this happened, Howell was Chief of Police for the District of the St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands Police Department — yeah, Chief Howell was rolling to a robbery in progress call...

There had been a string of robberies in the area, so Chief Howell was working saturated patrol with his SWAT team. When the call came in, Howell and his partner — Elsworth Jones — headed up a dark mountain road, devoid of houses under the canopy of tropical trees. They spotted a suspect car headed at a high rate of speed in the opposite direction, but by the time they did a 180 to begin pursuit, the car had disappeared from view.

They rounded a bend and saw the suspect vehicle’s tail lights in a ravine beside the road. They stopped, but did so in probably the worst possible place — the suspects lay in wait only feet from the patrol vehicle. Nine rounds tore through Chief Howell’s door. The first one hit Howell in the arm — his arm exploded — and traveled on to strike the SWAT officer in the face. The second round hit Howell in the lower back, traveling on to hit Jones in the jaw, shattering it.

At SHOT Show 2014, I met Chief Howell, who shared with me the details of his story, and his mission to save the lives of officers who may one day find themselves in a similarly deadly position. Watch the video and pick back up below ...

Blood Was Everywhere
Howell was able to get the car — which had been immobilized with a shot to the wiring compartment — into neutral so they could roll downhill and out of the kill zone. They traveled about a hundred yards before coming to a stop.

Blood was everywhere. Howell and Jones could taste blood in their mouths and they could barely see from all the blood in their eyes. They fumbled with the radio mic, which was slick with blood.

The suspects continued to fire as Jones called into the radio, “We’re hit! We’re hit! We’re hit! We’re hit!”

“We were covered in our own blood,” Howell told me. “I knew immediately I was bleeding to death.”

Fortunately, Howell and the rest of his officers — a PD with about 200 sworn — had just received trauma kits and the training to use them.

Those kits saved Howell and Jones that day.

“I was able to get the trauma kit out and get [the tourniquet] on my arm and stop the bleeding. My partner was able to put pressure on his injuries to stop the bleeding.”

They were told that backup was two minutes away. Howell and Jones flipped to full auto and started lighting up the hillside, fearful that the gunmen might be advancing on their position.

A squad car arrived, and the wounded officers were evacuated to an EMS unit waiting at the bottom of the hill.

Both men remain on medical leave as a consequence of their injuries. Howell’s new mission, he told me, is saving the lives of officers who may one day encounter the type of deadly confrontation he and Jones survived that night.

Chief Howell’s New Mission
Chief Howell underwent seven surgeries to repair the damage done by those AK rounds. Eight months after the shooting, he competed in Iron Man St. Croix — something his doctors said would be impossible. Having achieved that goal, Chief Howell then started an organization called Project Triage.

“We give trauma kits free of cost to police officers,” Howell said. “We teamed up with a company called Officer Survival Solutions, and they sell us kits at a deeply discounted rate.”

All the kits — dubbed Trauma Management Packs (TMP) — are specifically designed for law enforcement and contain the tools necessary to stop potentially fatal bleeding, including a hemostatic agent, a tourniquet, and a pressure bandage.

Project Triage relies solely on private donations to supply officers with these life-saving TMPs. Each TMP costs about $50, so local businesses — or individuals — that want to underwrite a department with kits can do so with a very reasonable donation. It should be noted that the folks at Project Triage can facilitate donations of any size — some people choose to donate enough to equip just one cop, while the International Association of Caribbean Police Commissioners has provided 40,200 kits across the Caribbean.

All the kits are marked with a unique tracking number associated with the entity that donated it. When an officer uses a kit to resolve a traumatic injury, the party whose donation led to that life-saving action is notified.

“Two out of three police officers killed in the line of duty die from blood loss,” Howell told me.

Perhaps one day, thanks to the efforts of Howell, the people at Project Triage, and private citizens who support law enforcement, that number will shrink to nearly negligible.

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