A news clipping of my first search and rescue mission. I am in the middle of the picture looking down with a white helmet. Tom Pendley is directly in front of me and the stokes basket carrying both bodies is between us. Ray Keelor and John Wyatt are also pictured.
My first Search And Rescue mission was in 1990. A single engine Glasair with two adults on board left Mesa’s Falcon Field against the advice of the FBO. The weather was bad at the airport and worse in the Four Peaks area to the North. Apparently the mic stuck open so everyone on that frequency heard the brief discussion between husband and wife as they turned back towards Falcon, then clipped the top of a tree and a Saguaro Cactus. When I arrived at the command post Pendley grabbed me and said I would be going in with him. That was the first of many times that I would follow him into an unknown situation without reservation. He evokes that kind of confidence. This was a body recovery plain and simple but they called us because the FAA guys needed to be looked after on such a steep slope plus somebody had to package the bodies up and get them on the helo. That was typical of the kind of work assigned to Mountain Rescue. If there was a dangerous, dirty, nasty job to be done it went to Lake Patrol and then they would call us. I liked that about the Team from the very beginning.
The scene was pristine. No blood. No smell. Just parts. It had all been washed clean by the rain. While we waited to do our part we walked the site. You could see where the airplane struck the tree and the cactus and the resulting cone shaped pattern of debris that ended with the engine block almost 600 yards down slope. I had worked some nasty car accidents but this was brutal. The energy of the impact savaged the bodies. It was as if they had been fed through a high-speed cheese grater. He was a big man and she was an over weight woman but despite our best efforts all we could manage was a single partially filled body bag that fit easily into the stokes basket.
The severity of the incident didn’t hit me until a few days later. It wasn’t the wreckage or the condition of the bodies. It wasn’t even the oily, sticky gelatinous substance covering my boots and pants legs that turned out to be subcutaneous fat. It was the phone calls afterwards from my Teammates asking if I was OK. They were waiting to see if I was going to quit and turn in my gear.
Over the next 14 years I witnessed many remarkable things. Suicides. Car accidents. Fall victims. Drownings. Heart attacks. Burns. Gunshot wounds. Mountain Lion and bear attacks. A lot of blood. A lot of death. A lot of bodies. The sights, the smells, the risks, none of it really bothered me. Except for one. It’s been exactly ten years now and that one still wakes me up in the middle of the night.
Saturday night, March 28th, 1998. My wife and kids and I were down the street at a fraternity brother’s house. We were going to have dinner and then walk around the neighborhood in the rain. I had a VHF radio with me as I often did on the weekends because that is when people got into trouble. One of us would usually have channel 8 on to see what was cooking and then put out a heads up page to the command staff. We did it because sometimes that was the only way we found out that we were needed. Since 1969 the Team had served the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office but it still took forever for them to dispatch us and sometimes it didn’t get done at all. It was the source of constant friction between the Team and the Office. It was ridiculous, completely unnecessary and the result of incompetence, apathy, immaturity and ego but not ours. Keeping an ear on the radio gave us a chance to do a slow roll towards the scene just in case. It also kept us from getting scooped by Rural Metro, a for profit fire department that worked several of our first due areas and always seemed eager to cut us out of the action when they could despite their lack of technical skill.
A month earlier Tom had prepared a briefing on swiftwater preparedness and sent it to the SAR Coordinators, our bosses at that time. He opined that it had been a very wet winter and that if we got a heavy, warm storm as we often did in early spring, there would be a significant number of serious swiftwater rescue incidents at all the usual unbridged water crossings throughout the county. Nobody paid any attention to it. Not even the plaintiff’s attorney afterwards.
My radio sat on the Mandinos mantle and crackled away while we visited and made dinner. The kids played in the back bedrooms. It had been raining good and steady in town throughout the night and most of the day. My gear was in the Jeep ready to go, as it always was. I wasn’t the best rock climber or the fastest one on the trail and there were more experienced medics on the Team but nobody was better prepared or quicker to the line than me. Being ready for anything, anytime was a big deal to me and I worked hard to stay sharp. I caught a piece of something about a vehicle in the water and walked over to turn the volume up. Apparently, there was a car full of Boy Scouts stuck in the middle of Sycamore Creek, near Sunflower. One of the hot spots Tom had identified. It was about 1830. I listened for a while longer and then put out a page. Since I was the one that put the new digital paging system together I took great pride in the fact that we no longer had to depend on an antiquated telephone tree to get the word out. I loved the idea that one phone call and a set of numbers could put everybody on stand by or get them all moving. It had cut our response times, once we were actually called, dramatically but that pager now controlled my life. It was with me 24/7/365 and it was the boss. No exceptions.
I was telling Matt that we were under the supervision of a new SAR Coordinator that explicitly ordered us not to self-dispatch to incidents that we heard brewing on the radio. No exceptions and punishable by dismissal and or termination. We listened for another 45 minutes and I was growing angrier by the minute. People, kids, were in trouble and the rescue team that could help them was waiting around for word from a newbie that had no idea what he was doing. Then a second deputy got on the scene and suggested that because of the distance maybe Mountain Rescue should be started or at least put on stand by. It was not an official call out and I was in fact violating a direct order but it was all I needed. Matt was still talking to me as I got up and ran out the door. I didn’t even say goodbye to Rebecca and the kids but they were used to that. I had left in the middle of so many things nobody really even noticed anymore. Wild horses could not have stopped me. I ran home, jumped in the Jeep, still wearing jeans and loafers, and headed for Sunflower. 43 miles away.
The wind was so strong that the sheets of rain came down at a 45-degree angle. The gusts blew my hard topped TJ from one lane to the other. I knew that our helicopter crew had been alerted to what was happening and was probably listening in so I gave periodic reports on the weather conditions as I went. They couldn’t or shouldn’t fly in that weather.
I finally got on scene, parked and grabbed my dive bag. I jumped into the back of an ambulance that had come up from Fountain Hills to get suited up. I only glanced at the scene but what I saw will stay with me forever. Several spot lights were trained on a Ford Explorer that was in the middle of the road running from the highway (old 87) to Bushnell Tanks where they had been camping. A man, a woman and four boys were sitting on the top of the vehicle. The creek that was normally only deep enough to get your tires wet was now well over it’s natural banks and moving fast. The water was up to the headlights and rising.
Swiftwater incidents are very much a johnny-on-the-spot thing. You have to get there and be ready quickly or you miss your chance to do some good. It takes me about two and a half minutes to doff my civvies and don a full wetsuit, rescue PFD, socks and felt bottomed lace up river boots. To save a little time, I skipped the socks (a decision I would regret later). I bolted out of the ambo and went over to a Deputy standing next to the water. We had gone through EMT school together and he was now a Sergeant. He looked me up and down and started to tell me that the Explorer was kind of rocking back and fourth. Tim Kovacs, one of our most senior guys had been on patrol duty and come in just behind me. He was wearing a PFD but still had his uniform and duty belt on which meant that I was “it” for now. I bent my head down to put my helmet on and Jimmy yelled there it goes. As I buckled my chinstrap I watched the vehicle roll and dump the people into the water. Outside of the light from the emergency vehicles the only other illumination came from a sodium light that was about 500 yards away. My first reaction was to sprint downstream through the brush and try to take a position ahead of anybody being swept down by the torrent. If we had been on scene earlier we would have had already deployed spotters and SAR Techs with rope bags and lights downstream. As it was, I was the only one there that was equipped, trained and ready.
It reminded me of a time in one of my high school football games. It was the opening kickoff and we were receiving. I was in the middle front row and the squibbed kick came right to me. I smothered the ball with both arms and charged forward with everything I had. The crush of the kickoff team hit me like a truck and immediately put me on my back knocking the air out of me. The first and last time I would ever carry the ball, I was a Center not a Running Back. The three strand barbed wire fence I hit at full speed did the same thing only there were no cheerleaders, no band, no teammates to pick me up and slap me on the ass. I picked myself up and started running again but not quite as hard. I suspect I had covered about 300 yards when I saw something tumbling in the water. I was able to keep up with it. I thought it was a cooler. Then it popped up on two legs like a gymnast finishing a floor routine. It was a woman and she came to rest on what was the actual creek bank between two saplings. She looked right at me. Ghostly white and shaking. There was 40 feet between us. The noise from the rain and the rushing water made it hard to communicate but I told her what I was going to do. I tossed my throw bag just like I had practiced hundreds of times. The line paid out as it flew through the air and it landed just beyond her but between the two saplings. It was a perfect shot that I couldn’t duplicate again in a million years. I made a decision that could have turned out to be a mistake because it broke all the rules of swftwater rescue. I had the woman tie the rope around her waist. That is a major league no no because if she goes back in the water before I get to her the force of the water and the line holding her will push her down and keep her down like a fishing lure. It would kill her. But I was still alone and I didn’t want to loose her. I tied my end to a good size tree next to me, another no no, and went in. The water at its deepest part hit me just above the waist and it was cold.
You never know for sure what a scared, cold, desperate victim is going to do once you make contact with them. Sometimes you have to fight them, sometimes they collapse. Lea Stubblefield, the driver of the Explorer and mother of one of the Scouts, was pretty cooperative as we made our way back across the water, onto land and up to the ambulance. She kept asking where her son was and all I could tell was I didn’t know. Unbeknownst to me, six people had gone into the water. Lea, her son and another boy were now out of the water and safe thanks to the guys back by the vehicles. The adult male and two 12-year-old boys were unaccounted for.
After delivering Lea I turned and ran back to the water. There were more people here now. Rural Metro firefighters in full bunkers and fire helmets. They were not properly outfitted for this but they went anyway. We walked the creek for a while looking and yelling. We didn’t see anything but some junk and camping gear. It was about 2030 or so, the weather wasn’t letting up at all and we were getting father and farther away from Command. After some discussion the fireman turned back to get geared up properly but I never saw them again.
I spent most of the next 10 hours in and out of the water searching. Our helicopter was able to make it out despite the weather and it took Chuck Clover and I to the other side of the creek where it branched several times. The water was neck deep in places but slower. We had sort of moved into recovery mode so we had to check out every nook and cranny and snag for a body. The weather was crazy. We had thunder, lightning, rain, sleet and then it started snowing. It got so cold I had little icicles hanging off my helmet. At about midnight, out of nowhere, a cowboy on a horse with a dog walked up to us. He was wearing a full-length duster, a felt western hat and smoking a cigarette (it had to be a Marlboro). Command told us to send him away but he lived up the creek and knew the area like the back of his hand. Plus, from atop that big gelding, he had a much better vantage point than we did on the ground. The dog might help too. So we recruited him. Haught was his last name.
At about 0100 he found one of the missing boys. Dead. 901H We found the other a little later a few hundred yards away. Also 901H. Those are the images I can’t get out of my head. As the sun came up we still had not found our last victim, the adult male that was the Troop Leader. It was snowing so hard that our helicopter crew could not fly. Our Bell 407 did not have snow baffles. When the cowboy showed up again at the Command Post to tell us that his dog had found the last victim about three miles downstream a TV helicopter had to take me in and let me off in a clearing. I found Haught and we walked in. I didn’t see the victim at first because he was two feet below the surface but then I saw the blue glint of his jeans. That was all that he had on. I marked the water level. We were in the middle of the main channel but it flattened way out so there were lots of little tributaries. If the water came up farther we would be in trouble. Command wanted some pictures of the scene and was trying to get a Detective out to us but it was taking too long. It was now snowing so hard that I could not see the far side of the creek and the water was rising. If we didn’t get out of there now we were going to get stuck. I figured we had to get the body out while we had it so we tied it to the saddle, which was no small feat because that horse did not want any part of it. I hung on to one stirrup and the cowboy the other and that horse pulled us all the way to the bank. By the time TV5 came back in the entire area was underwater. I sent the cowboy on and managed to get the body into the red AStar helicopter. We made the short flight back to the Command Post with the doors open. Between my fogging up the windows and the snow we could barely see. I was cold, exhausted and pissed off. All I wanted to do was go home and see my wife and kids. It had been an epic battle and we had lost three people. Needlessly, negligently in my opinion.
One of my Teammates got me something hot to drink, I fired the heat up in the Jeep as high as it would go and headed for home still in a wetsuit that stunk of sweat, urine and blood. I listened to the news. They were all talking about it. They listed the names of the victims and speculated about how it could have happened. If I had had cellular coverage I would have called in and told them everything.
When I turned on to my street in Scottsdale I keyed the big Motorola radio mic and cleared the channel 8 dispatcher. Mountain Rescue 16, show me 10-7 at my 48 please, goodnight ma’am. Even though it was daytime she said good night back and added something about it being a long day. I rolled up onto the driveway just as a mans voice came over the radio. All he said was good work out there today Wade and then there were a series of clicks from other guys keying their mics. My kids came running out of the house and the emotion of the whole thing hit me like a ton of bricks. The dead kids. My own kids. The absurdity of the situation. That voice. I cried like a baby. Rebecca peeled the wet suit off of me, got me in the shower, and put me to bed. I shivered myself to sleep and didn’t wake up until the next morning.
It was that mission that made me realize why I was so committed, obsessed really, to this crazy thing called the Team. Why I was willing to put it above everything else. It wasn’t to serve the community like I told everybody. It wasn’t for the medal they would give me or the commendations. It was for those clicks. To be recognized by my peers for being there and doing the job when it counted and the way that made me feel. It was the game ball for hitting the winning home run or making the tackle that saved the game. There are firefighters, cops, soldiers, and athletes that will read this and know exactly what I am talking about. I can’t explain it any better than that but I can tell you that it is a very powerful motivator. Intoxicating and addictive but that is another story.
Lea asked me once why I rescued her and not one of the kids. You were the only one I saw, I told her. I didn’t tell her that I would be asking myself the same question for the rest of my life.
It is funny how things affect you later. I had seen worse and been in tougher spots but there was something about those boys that got into my head. I can only imagine what a combat medic or a 9/11 firefighter has to deal with. I hope they find some peace.
Here’s to those boys. They should have been graduating from college this year.
UPDATE – ONE OF THE KIDS WE RESCUED THAT DAY, LEAS SON, CONTACTED ME IN 2012. HE IS ALL GROWN UP NOW AND WORKING AS AN EMT LOCALLY. HE ASKED TO MEET WITH ME BUT I AM STILL NOT READY TO DO THAT YET.
I DO STOP BY THAT LITTLE CATTLE GUARD ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD NOW AND THEN TO VISIT THOSE FOUR CROSSES. HELPS ME KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.
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