Danger Afield in Alaska, another tale...
Hand-held radio led to rescue
SAVED:Lost hunters sent mayday call; AWACS crew directed chopper.
By Zaz Hollander
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: May 20, 2002)
Two bear hunters stranded by a whiteout in the foothills of the Alaska Range last month survived with help from a U.S. Air Force radar plane cruising miles above the storm.
Lost without survival gear, hunters Devon Day and Mike Thompson spent the night of April 17 away from their camp in a tiny snow cave between Capps Glacier and Beluga Lake, near Mount Spurr. The next day, they struggled to walk -- much less find their camp -- as exhaustion and hypothermia set in.
Then an E-3 Sentry AWACS crew on a training exercise heard Day's mayday call on a small hand-held radio he carried. At the same time, the Rescue Coordination Center at Fort Richardson was receiving calls from other planes that were hearing the mayday. The center dispatched an Air National Guard HH-60 helicopter to the area.
The AWACS crew relayed the hunters' position to the helicopter, which was struggling to find the men in the thick cloud cover.
The copter landed on a bench at 1,700 feet and lifted them to safety. The men were suffering the effects of hypothermia but were otherwise fine.
On Thursday, Day and his family met with the radar plane crew that helped save his life. The setting: a send-off picnic for members of the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron who are leaving in late May or early June for Saudi Arabia to monitor the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
Squadron members who fly in AWACS -- Airborne Warning and Control System -- jets usually don't get to see such immediate results.
AWACS crews work removed from the action, strapped into chairs in a windowless airplane at 32,000 feet, staring at computer screens, radar scopes and other high-tech communications and surveillance gear.
"We have a $300 million jet that can do a lot of sophisticated stuff, and we went out there and saved a couple lives," Sgt. Julian Joseph said after he met Day's family at the picnic. "It kind of makes my job worthwhile."
If the men hadn't been rescued that day, they probably would have died, said Lt. Col. Chuck Foster, director of the Rescue Coordination Center at Fort Richardson.
Paramedics on the helicopter that rescued Day told him his body temperature was just under 94 degrees.
Helicopter pilot Lt. Col. Riff Patton said finding the hunters without help from the E-3 would have been nearly impossible because low clouds forced him to fly below the hunters and out of radio contact.
Day, a longtime friend of Judd Lake guide Dean Hilde, is a trucking and equipment contractor who lives in Anchorage. Thompson, who helps Hilde guide bear hunts, is a machinist from Maryland who lives in a suburb of San Francisco.
Both men this week acknowledged they were ill-prepared for their emergency. Day chose not to wear snowshoes when they started to hunt, and he quickly grew tired from postholing in the snow.
Neither hunter wore gloves toward the end because both had soaked through while they dug their snow cave.
And they left camp with light packs containing no survival gear, no fire-making tools, no map and no compass.
The hunters were savvy enough to stay alive in conditions that could have killed them but made several potentially fatal mistakes, such as not carrying a way to start a fire or stay warm, said Jerry Lewanski, chief ranger for Chugach State Park.
Generally, anyone heading into the backcountry should get a detailed weather forecast and stay put if he gets lost, Lewanski said.
"If you're a mile from camp, you might as well be 100 miles if you break a leg," he said. "You have to be incredibly prepared for emergencies. I'm not going to pick on these guys, because they probably did what many people do. When you leave camp, there's this false sense of security."
Thompson and Day say that's basically what happened to them.
The weather looked good the morning of April 17. The rock face where they'd seen a bear from the air was about two hours away.
Each man carried a canteen of water and a granola bar. Thompson carried an emergency blanket. Day also carried two large heavy-duty trash bags in case they had to pack out a bear hide.
About two hours out, the snow started. Day suggested they turn around.
Ten minutes later, clouds lowered to the ground and an icy snow started blowing sideways. Visibility dropped to zero.
Day, carrying a VHF radio, tried with no luck to broadcast mayday calls to jets he heard overhead four or five times that day.
The exertion of the trek soaked a cotton shirt Day wore under layers of flannel and a Gore-Tex jacket. Chilled and drained, he told Thompson he had to stop for the night about 8 or 9 p.m.
Day dug a snow cave wide enough for both men. But Day, his muscles cramping and soaked from snow that melted in the cave, didn't want to sleep. He stayed awake pacing and trying to stave off hypothermia.
The men decided to wear the garbage bags as a wind and water barrier.
At first light, they started walking again. Thompson had left his snowshoes in camp, supporting a shelter the men built overnight. Day was dizzy and shivering.
Finally, around 10 a.m. on April 18, a Federal Express jet heard the mayday message, as did several other planes that relayed the problem to the Rescue Coordination Center.
Both hunters pledge to carry global positioning system equipment in the future so they can pinpoint their camp or their position if lost.
"When I went home, I got off the plane in San Jose. I got in at like 9 or 10," Thompson said. "At 12, I was at REI. I bought a GPS" unit.