These are my stories as a volunteer member of the Sheriff's Search & Rescue team in Coconino County, Arizona. I'll share what it's like to go from a beginner with a lot to learn to an experienced and, hopefully, valuable member of the team, as well as the missions, trainings, and other activities along the way.
About Coconino County
About Coconino County
Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.
March 31, 2008
Once Was Not Enough
Saturday evening, my pager goes off shortly after eight. Steve is getting sleepy, but I'm happy for some pending adventure to work off my unused energy. Sergeant D's message says this is a call-out for a lost motorist whose vehicle got stuck somewhere down a Forest Service road. The man walked away from his vehicle earlier today and has been wandering around in the pinion-juniper forest for hours, no idea where he is. But he's gotten to a place where he has a cell phone signal and called for help.
I'm actually surprised I've made it to the Search & Rescue building before getting the ol' 10-22. Given the circumstances, I'm betting that Ranger, the DPS helicopter, is going to find this guy. The light of a cell phone screen is pretty easy for them to spot at night, and if his cell phone is still working, they can have an ongoing dialog with the lost motorist and probably hone in on his position. In fact, as I'm changing into proper clothing for a cold night's mission, I can hear radio traffic just outside the bathroom door, and, sure enough, Ranger, Dispatch and the lost man are communicating. The man tells Dispatch he can hear and then see the helicopter, and he describes Ranger's relative position. But six of us volunteers continue to get ready, just in case. We get the ATV trailers hooked up, sign out radios, grab extra batteries, ATV helmets, and .... oh, okay, put it all away; they've got the guy. And he's in an open field where Ranger can land.
So I go home, sleep, spend a wonderful 10th anniversary Sunday with my husband, have dinner and ... beep, beep, beep! But Steve doesn't mind--the good-natured soul that he is--so off I go to search and, hopefully, rescue. Besides, the same guy is missing for a second night in a row? This time, there's no cell phone contact. I have to respond to this one.
The scenario goes like this: At approximately 8:00 this morning, this guy's soon-to-be ex-wife drops him off along the same Forest Service road he drove down yesterday. He wants to go find his vehicle, a 3/4-ton Ford 250 pickup. Apparently, everything he owns is in that truck. But the soon-to-be ex doesn't want to drive her car too far down the unpaved road, so she drops the man off at a rock-filled gully about 4 miles in. Then the subject, dressed in Carhardt coveralls and a baseball cap, proceeds to walk at least nine miles to where he thinks his truck is located. This 50 year-old long-time smoker was apparently carrying a grocery bag filled with Camel cigarettes. As far as we know, that's all he was carrying.
At about 3pm, the subject made a cell phone call to his wife, but the call was broken up. He was talking about getting a tow truck. (Note to self: that means he'd probably found his vehicle by then.) But I guess that was the extent of the conversation when the call was dropped. Sergeant D has made repeated calls to the man's phone but has had to leave messages. The cell phone company has confirmed which tower the call utilized and that the phone is now powered down, which could mean a dead battery. They gave a range of 4 miles for that cell tower, though my companions this evening don't put much stock in that information; they seem to think the range can be much further. At any rate, the subject's wife didn't hear from him again and he didn't return to the shelter in Flagstaff, where he's been staying.
Tonight, we have the same group of volunteers as last night, plus eventually three more. We split into three groups, two towing ATV trailers, and spread out. I'm riding with Scott and Ken, studying the map as we turn off I-40 east onto Forest Service Road 82 with three ATVs on our trailer. Another group with ATVs is heading up the same road from the south, so we're making our way towards each other. Two others have driven further down I-40 to begin searching closer to the cell phone tower.
About four miles in, we clearly see where the subject was dropped off at the rock-filled gully. It isn't that bad; even in a car, it could be crossed, and the road looks good up ahead. Poor guy had to walk a lot further than necessary, in my opinion. We stop now and then to get out and look for footprints, but we aren't sure what type of shoes the man was wearing, and there appears to have been vehicle traffic which could have wiped out most, if not all, prints on the road.
We soon flag down a group of woodcutters in three trucks, who at first seem hesitant to talk to us. The men in the first two trucks deny seeing anyone today, but according to the two men and one young boy in the third truck, they saw our guy before they began woodcutting around noon. After looking at our map, which Scott and Ken spread out on the hood of their truck, and being shown where we're standing and where certain features are on the map, the woodcutters seem to agree on where they saw Fredrick. I can't help but wonder about their information, primarily because they were fed the description of the subject's clothing and approximate location. But I suppose I should go along with it as being true. Scott and Ken seem to think so.
We continue down the road and come to a fork. FSR 82 goes to the right, FSR 233 to the left. We wander around, the wind whipping as it's been doing all day. I walk slowly along the left side of 233, though we're feeling quite confident that the subject headed down 82; that assumption goes along with what the woodcutters said and is more in the direction of the man's rescue location from last night. But then I find something. The butt of a cigarette, just a couple of yards down 233. The little camel picture is still visible--that's the subject's brand!--and the butt is squishy, so it seems fresh. Yippee! I found a clue! But ... well, my companions, who have 25 combined years of experience with CCSSAR, don't think it helps us much. They say there's no footprint near it, that the piece of cigarette could have blown over here, and that the woodcutters say they saw the subject further down FSR 82 (the other road) earlier today. Oh, phooey. But I stick the little souvenir clue in my pocket, anyway.
Okay, I admit it! You dragged it out me. I'm a little competitive. I wanna find me a clue! I wanna find the guy and have the "old-timers" say, "Hey, Deb is pretty good at this." Well, maybe next time. And hopefully that next time will be tonight.
But, alas, at 1am, the subject has yet to be found. After riding around on increasingly rough roads, getting a bit hung up towing that ATV trailer through some tight spots, and finding lots of footprints, none of which we could be sure belonged to the man we're looking for, Sergeant D tells us to call it a night. The DPS helicopter, unavailable on Sunday, will be back after dawn to fly the area. Maybe they can spot the subject's truck from the air, and if the truck is found, hopefully Fredrick will be with it.
Before leaving the SAR building, we give our Coordinator a run-down of what we did, what we found--including my little cigarette butt, which he seems to think is important--and where Scott and Ken think Ranger should concentrate their search. Driving home a few minutes later, I'm feeling a little frustrated. I really wanted to drive down FSR 233. If ... or, I should say, when ... the subject is found, I'll be really interested to know where he was.
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