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Friday, August 3, 2012

Search and Rescue Stories in the News

Image Credit: Wikimedia / CC 3.0
Some SAR Stories I've collected lately and thought I'd share. If you have any links or Search & Rescue stories of your own to post, please add them in the guestbook or email me at to be included in a future blog post.

Catch Me If You Can

When Robert Wood Jr. disappeared in a densely forested Virginia park, searchers faced the challenge of a lifetime. The eight-year-old boy was autistic and nonverbal, and from his perspective the largest manhunt in state history probably looked like something else: the ultimate game of hide-and-seek. Read this fascinating, 13-page story from Outside Magazine.


American Climbers Missing in Peru

A search team reached the base camp and spotted the apparent tracks of two U.S. mountaineers who had not been heard from since July 11th, when they set off to climb a 20,000-foot glacier-capped peak in the Cordillera Blanca range of northern Peru. Gil Weiss, 29, and Ben Horne, 32, both experienced climbers, were attempting the west summit of Palcaraju from the south. Read about the search, which included the use of satellite imagery, and then how the search ended.

Bright Idea! Hiker Saved by Flashlight App

A lost hiker on Maryland's Catoctin Mountain used an iPhone application to signal rescuers. Read about it on (I'm just sayin' ... but I think any lighted cell phone screen or other light source would have worked. Don't you? No app necessary.)

Boy Plucked From Wallace Falls

The 13-year-old Burien, Washington, boy who was rescued from a ledge just feet away from 265-foot Wallace Falls said he's fortunate he walked away from the ordeal with little more than cuts and scrapes on his feet. He narrowly escaped being swept over the falls and spent the night shivering on the ledge before being rescued by volunteers from the  Snohomish County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team. Read the story in the Seattle Times and watch a video of the rescue.

Wallace Falls Rescue Mission from A. Toyota on Vimeo.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Some Tough Rescue-ees in the News

The odds may have been against these folks, but they survived. Here are some Search and Rescue stories--some recent, some not--with rather surprising happy endings. These are great examples of why searchers should never assume that a subject is definitely deceased, even if the likelihood seems high.

Former Marine Found After 2 Days in the Oregon Snow

37 year-old Jason Cooper had been involved in a minor, low-speed fender-bender on Highway 138D, which cuts through Umpqua National Forest, when he was seen by the other driver run off through the snow into the woods. Cooper was wearing shorts and sandals.

Law enforcement followed the man's tracks in snow that was 2 feet deep, but they had to suspend the search at dark.  Police became more concerned when they learned that Cooper suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Read the whole article on

Swedish Man Survives Two Months in Snow-Buried Car

The 45-year-old from southern Sweden was found emaciated and too weak to utter more than a few words.  The temperature in the area had recently dropped to -22F (-30C).  He was located not far from the city of Umea in the north of Sweden by snowmobilers who thought they had come across a car wreck until they dug their way to a window and saw movement inside.

Read the story on MSNBC.

Swiss National Survives Three Cold Nights Stuck in an Arizona Canyon

He'd heard about Waterholes Canyon, which leads down to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, from someone on a tour the previous day and thought he'd give it a try. Being an experienced climber, he apparently wasn't concerned about getting back up after going down. And when he found ropes already set up at the first couple of rappels, left behind by other canyoneers, he figured (he later said) the ropes would continue all the way to the bottom. They did not. And whether he knew about the 400-foot rappel along the way, I don't know.

Well, things didn't go as expected. The man ended up stranded deep in the canyon, with an ankle injury and rope burns on both hands, through a wet winter storm, wearing shorts, missing his socks, and without food and water.

Read more about the mission on my blog, Deb's Search and Rescue Stories.

Hiker Missing for Almost a Month Found in New Mexico

A female hiker and her cat had been reported missing more than two weeks before the search actually began. She was eventually found, emaciated and malnourished, in her sleeping bag in a rugged National Forest. (The cat survived, too.)

Read the story on USA Today and watch this video about the story...

Two Hikers Survived Seven Weeks in South American Jungle

The hike was supposed to last for ten days. Instead, two 34-year-old Frenchmen survived on seeds, frogs, turtles, beetles and tarantulas for seven weeks. The search had been suspended after three.

Read the story on Journal Peru.

Woman Survives 7 Weeks in Remote Area of Nevada

You probably heard about this one. The woman and her husband were driving from British Columbia to Las Vegas, following the directions of a GPS ... blindly so it seems. The husband left the stranded van after a few days in an attempt to get help. He has not been seen since, but he wife miraculously survived.

Read the story on Reuters.

Injured British Hiker Survives Week-Long Ordeal Stranded in New Zealand Wilderness

A 33-year-old man spends 8 days in the backcountry after a fall down a 15-foot cliff, with a broken ankle and gash in his thigh.

Read the story on Mail Online.

Severely Injured Woman Survives Four Days and Nights in The Sierras

Amy Racina was hiking in a remote part of King's Canyon National Park in California when she lost the trail and suddenly fell sixty feet, breaking both legs. She battled pain, fear and exhaustion, pulling herself along with her hands and refusing to give up. Amy was saved when her calls heard by a man who was partially deaf.

Read the full story in Amy's book, Angels in the Wilderness, available in hard cover, paperback and on Kindle.

Have you ever been involved with or know of a search for someone who'd been missing for an extended period of time but was found alive? If so, please share it here in the guestbook.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rescuers Consider Amputation to Save a Trapped Victim

Imagine as a rescuer that you might actually have to cut off a victim's limb in the field to potentially save that person's life.

That was what rescuers considered on New Year's Day, as they were trying to free 15-year-old Dion Latta, who was hanging upside down in a waterfall in Wanaka's Motatapu Gorge in New Zealand. His foot was stuck and twisted in a narrow crack, and he'd been sucking air from a pocket behind the water for more than three hours when the amputation was considered. Dion was also hypothermic.

Wanaka-based search and rescue volunteers, police and others weighed all their options as they desperately tried to extricate Dion. Regarding amputation, however, the general medical opinion was that the shock involved with such a procedure under those conditions could itself prove fatal. 

Breaking the flow of the icy water with their bodies, rescuers on rappel were finally able to free Dion, and he was then short-hauled out by helicopter. Unconscious, he was stabilized on scene and flown to Dunedin Hospital. Sadly, though, after the heroic effort to save him, the boy later died.

Read the story and view photos on

Related article:

Field Limb Amputations Used as an Extrication Option in Complicated Entrapments or Disaster Events

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Now, That's a Search & Rescue Response!

White Sands NM (Wikimedia Commons/CC)
Wow, these two lost hikers sure had a lot of resources come to their aid....

From the NPS Digest:

White Sands National Monument (NM)
Newly Engaged Couple Found By Interagency Searchers

"On the afternoon of Monday, January 9th, the Park learned that two visitors who had been hiking within the dunes since noon were lost and unable to find their way out. Russell Vandameer and Karen Renshaw, both of Oklahoma, left to go hiking with their three dogs, Stitch, Suzy, and Griswald. After finding a suitably beautiful spot within the dunes, Vandemeer proposed to Renshaw. The newly engaged couple then attempted to hike back to their car, but were unable to find their way back. Rather than continue to wander becoming more lost, they contacted a cousin via cell phone and requested that help be sent.

An interagency effort was begun that involved the NPS, the Alamo West Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army. While two Army Rescue Blackhawk helicopters were en route from Fort Bliss, approximately an hour away, Holloman Air Force base diverted an F-22 Raptor from a training mission to the search effort. The pilot of the Raptor was able to positively identify the couple with their three dogs.  Two Air Force drones were also tasked, which were able to relay specific coordinates and monitor the lost hiker's location and movement from the air while the Army helicopters were en route.

The hikers and their dogs were transported by the Army Blackhawks out of the dunes to the command post, where they were examined by NPS and Alamo West EMS for exposure to the below freezing nighttime temperatures. Renshaw accepted Vandemeer's marriage proposal. The newly engaged couple invited the Blackhawk crew to the wedding. The search effort was greatly aided by the assistance of the military aircraft, which utilized night vision and infrared equipment to safely locate the hikers after nightfall."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Interesting SAR K9 Reaction -- A Bit of HR versus a Whole Body

I'm not a SAR dog handler, but I do frequently back one of our team's handlers and her four NASAR-certified Golden Retrievers, all cross-trained in area search and human remains (HR) detection. Recently, I accompanied this experienced K9 team on a two-part mission -- first the search of the subject's abandoned vehicle and then the area search for the missing man -- and witnessed what was, to me, a fascinating and unexpected phenomenon. That is, the difference in the dogs' reactions when detecting a tiny amount of HR compared to their reactions when they found the decomposing body.

During the search of the locked vehicle, each dog independently and enthusiastically alerted on the trunk. Two of the four even appeared frustrated, digging at the ground and repeatedly jumping up with their front legs and hitting at the car with their paws, as if they wanted to get at the source of the scent. One or more barked, and all jumped up on their handler.

Once law enforcement officers were given permission to have the vehicle unlocked and the trunk was opened, there was no body inside and no HR visible. Each dog was again brought back to the car, one by one, and each again alerted on the trunk, this time pointing with their noses and/or paws at a specific location inside when their handler said, "Show me."

When the vehicle was later towed to the Sheriff's Department and gone through by detectives, it was found that the dogs had indeed alerted on a spot of blood, about the size of nickel, on a pair of pants located below other items in the trunk.

On a different day, during the area search around where the vehicle had been parked, the body of the missing man was found by another K9 team. My team's handler and I and two of her four dogs were searching another location at the time, so we didn't witness the other dog's reaction, but our handler soon brought her dogs, one by one, to the remains to let them have a full body "find." The man had been deceased for some time -- up to three weeks -- but was intact, sitting on a blanket up against a tree. As we watched the first of the dogs move in toward the scent, I was expecting him to have an equal or greater reaction as he did to the spot of blood in the trunk.

But I was very wrong. The dog moved slowly, smelling around maybe ten feet from the body. Smelling ... smelling ... moving in a little closer. And closer. Looking up towards his handler now and then. Then he got even closer to the body, sniffing around near his hand. And then the dog raised his head, coming face-to-face with the deceased, and he jumped back, startled. He moved away and continued sniffing around the periphery. He peed on a bush. Slowly, the dog, the youngest of the four Goldens, made his way over to his handler, and gave a quiet alert, jumping up on her but without the enthusiasm he had at the vehicle. This was this dog's first full body.

I looked at the handler, confused.

"Think about what they train on," she said. "Small amounts of HR. It's very rare to have access to a whole body. So they're used to tiny bits, instead of such a huge scent pool."

That did make sense; although it took some time to sink in.

The first dog slowly moves in closer to the subject.

She retrieved the second dog, this one the oldest of her four. This dog had experienced one whole body before. But, oddly enough ... as I was still thinking ... he didn't go all the way in to the body, sniffing around the periphery like the first dog. Like the first dog, he urinated in the area. Though he showed no sign of wanting to leave the area, he didn't alert at all until prompted.

Again, the handler explained this to me, much like I later read in this excerpt:

From Buzzards and Butterflies -- Human Remains Detection Dogs (p. 58) : "Each dog is different. While some are adept at smaller quantities, when an entire body is present in a search scene, things change. Some dogs will continue to find and alert on larger quantities in the same manner they do with smaller quantities. However, many will react in totally different ways with a whole body or one that is in a more advanced stage of decomposition. Some will approach but not enter the zone of the hottest scent.  They will not narrow down the source to the same degree that they do with disarticulated or smaller scent sources. Some will not get within 100 feet of a severely decomposed body but will slap or touch the paw at a skeleton. Each handler needs to experience varying degrees of decomposition in order to fully understand how their dog will react. With over 400 compounds formed during the decomposition process ... handlers can hardly prepare for each and every stage of decomposition. They can, however, expose the dog to as many of these varying stages as possible."(See Buzzards and Butterflies: Human Remains Detection Dogs on Amazon)

Do you have experience with HR (or cadaver) dogs? And have you witnessed anything like I've described, or a different reaction when a K9 locates a body versus the usually tiny amounts of HR they train on? Please share your experiences or comments here. If you have a related question, I'll try to get a good answer for you from our handler, who's also a SAR K9 instructor. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Search & Rescue Reading and Writing

These are the latest SAR blogs and books to come my way. 

Seeking The Lost

Author Dale Matson is a volunteer for the Fresno County Mountaineering Unit of the Sheriff's Department, who recently published a book about nine of the searches he's been involved with over the last seven years:  Seeking The Lost: Stories of Search and Rescue. Father Dale is also an Anglican Priest, a retired licensed plumber and heavy equipment operator, and a psychologist. These SAR stories are told as seen through Dale Matson's eyes as he worked with fellow volunteers and law enforcement personnel. The book begins with an overview of the search process, then tells the stories of specific searches, from call outs to conclusions. The stories include gear selection, navigation, and even the humor that can emerge in serious and sometimes dangerous conditions. Not every story describes a successful outcome but every search is treated as a learning experience.

Mountain Rescue Association Blog

The MRA published their first blog post on June 30, 2011, with What is MRA's Position on Charging for Search and Rescue? and then followed up with posts about the ten essentials and hyperthermia and heat-related illnesses. The Mountain Rescue Association (MRA), the oldest SAR association in the U.S., was established in 1959 at Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood, Oregon, and now is comprised of more than 90 government authorized units. Read the MRA blog.

Mountain Rescue Blog

The purpose of Mountain Rescue Blog is to share mountain search and rescue techniques, tools, news and opinions with others who are in the field or are interested in mountain SAR. Author Ethan Zook, a rock climber, hiker, caver and river paddler, has been exploring the outdoors since he was a child. During college, Ethan wanted to put his interests and skills to good use, so he joined the local mountain search and rescue team. He's also a firefighter/EMT-B with Hose Company #4 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a Wilderness EMT, and he holds certifications in lifeguarding and CPR. Rounding out his outdoor resume, Ethan is a professional climbing guide and instructor. As a volunteer with  the Rockingham-Augusta Search and Rescue Team (RASAR), he helps provide mountain SAR services to Rockingham and Augusta counties and the larger Commonwealth of Virginia.  Ethan and his wife, Melissa, are now also members of Old Rag Mountain Stewards, a volunteer group providing outdoor education and rescue services to hikers on Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Read Mountain Rescue Blog

Sunday, July 3, 2011

New Search and Rescue Reading and Ongoing Searches

I recently received emails from two Search and Rescue team members about each of their new books....

75 Search and Rescue Stories: An insider's view of survival, death, and volunteer heroes who tip the balance when things fall apart

Author Shaun Roundy, a Sergeant with the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Mountain Rescue Team and the Mountain Rescue Association Intermountain Region Chair, has just published this book of the most memorable rescues of his past 12 years with the unit, including 150 photos. He tells these stories from two perspectives -- from that of the victim who gets in over his or her head and then from the professional volunteer rescuer who puts it all on the line for strangers, sometimes in the worst possible conditions.

DEATH CLOUDS On Mt Baldy: Tucson's Lost Tragedy

This is a true story about the more than 750 heroes who participated in what became the largest search and rescue operation in Arizona's history, which took place in November, 1958. Their mission: to rescue three young Boy Scouts lost in an unforecast southern Arizona monster blizzard in the Santa Rita mountains. Author Cathy Hufault is the sister of one of three other Boy Scouts who were with the victims until they'd turned back and were able to go for help.

Read Chapter 1

Search and Rescue in the News: 

Virginia Hiker Missing in West Virginia's Cranberry Wilderness : West Virginia State Police say 56-year-old Michael Camellitti, of Stanardsville, Va., entered the densely wooded Cranberry Wilderness on May 23rd for a four-day hike, but he did not return. He has been declared missing since June 12. Read the story

Search and Rescue Crews Suspend Ground Search for Missing Hornby Island Teen : Search and rescue crews have suspended the ground search for a 16-year-old Hornby Island resident who went missing after setting out in his new kayak on the afternoon of June 29th, but the Comox Valley RCMP say they will continue their search on the water. Read the story

Just Found:

Bodies of Missing Doctor and Daughter Found in the Wilderness : Dr. Michael von Gorler, 53, from Boulder, CO, and his 20-year-old daughter, Makana, a University of Colorado student, were last heard from on June 21st, when Makana sent a text message to her boyfriend, telling him she was going to hike 14,067-foot Missouri Mountain near Buena Vista. This was supposed to be a day-hike on June 23rd. Ground searchers were assisted by two National Guard helicopters, one of which was a Black Hawk that could carry as many as nine searchers into the area. Today, their bodies were found about a mile from the summit. Read the story