By Heather Clower
The Parsons Advocate
Around 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 30, a resident of Tucker County took to the Fernow Experimental Forest believed to be in search of a hunting camp he had looked for in times past and was unable to find. The location he was headed to was on McGowen Mountain, in an area called Devils Gulch which is known to contain rocky and rugged terrain infiltrated with laurel.
According to OEM Director and Company 10 Fire Chief Kevin White, he was informed that this individual is well versed in the woods, hiking, and being outdoors. “The thing about that area is, of course even though these are mapped trails, they are not very well maintained if maintained at all,” explained White. “Those areas, they tend to grow up very fast so you can be what’s on a very well beaten path or trail, you can try to go around something and the next thing you know there’s no longer a trail,” he continued. To White’s understanding, this is what lead to the individual becoming disoriented and losing his bearings in the forest.
The call came in around 9:50 p.m. Thursday evening alerting the authorities that the individual did not return, which triggered a missing hiker alert. A preliminary search was conducted that evening around 11:30 p.m. after a briefing was held at headquarters. “The guys made about a six mile round trip hike to an area that they thought he could possibly be, and came back at that point and time and we called it until daylight,” said White. “Typically we don’t do nighttime searches unless there’s an injury,” he explained. This is to ensure everyone’s safety, however these procedures are modified to meet the circumstance’s needs.
“The situation dictates the reaction, but there is a general guideline for search and rescues that we do whether it’s a hiker, a hunter, or an individual in their backyard; we have a set of guidelines we follow, a standard operating procedures per say,” White explained. This isn’t just for lost individuals, but any accident that the responders may encounter has this in place with the understanding that adjustments are made accordingly. “We work well with law enforcement because any time with a search and rescue it’s also considered a missing person, so law enforcement is involved so they have a role that they have to do,” he said. “You never know if there’s an incident of other than just a lost person,” White assured. Knowing that the individual was healthy and knowledgeable allowed for a slightly larger window and more comfort knowing he was able to take care of himself until daylight to continue the search.
When asked how the lost hiker survived through the night, White said, “From the statement I took from him, basically he found a rock ledge or an area something similar to that and crawled up into that for the night so he had some protection from the elements.” “He definitely knew when to call it quits and not be fumbling around in the dark.”
The next morning, a meeting was held at the station to ensure all entities involved understood the task and a timeline of when to initiate additional resources. At this time, those involved included Parsons, Thomas, Canaan Valley, and Harman Fire Department, Tucker County Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Tucker County Sheriff’s Department, Search and Rescue with West Virginia State Police, and Tucker County EMS. “There was a small group of vetted private sector people, we do use these people from time to time,” he continued.
During the search, a crew composed of White and members of Parsons and Harman VFD was headed in on the road to a checkpoint at an initial staging area where they stopped to obtain direction from Captain Tom Klus. While stationary, a gunshot was heard followed by White reaching out to crews via radio to determine if that shot was made by a crew member, which it was determined it was not made by a search member. While the radio contact was being made, a crew entered the woods approximately 300 yards in attempt to find the source of the shot when they discovered the missing hiker.
“He was the one that had fired the location shot,” confirmed White. “He was on a ridge line and was headed out, he wasn’t actually headed to our location but he caught the red lights flashing by.” The individual indicated to White that the lights were what helped him head in the direction of the rescue crews and lead to him firing the location shot in attempt to be rescued.
Fortunately, no injuries were encountered by the individual, only experience minor drowsiness, hunger, and thirst. “He did have a little bit of food with him that day for his hike, and he was down to bare minimum of that left,” White said. Tucker EMS evaluated the man to ensure his vital signs were all stable, which everything was satisfactory.
“We did have resources in line for the next day, we had already planned ahead for a multiple day search,” White assured. “We were moments away from launching a National Guard Helicopter,” he added as well as plans to initiate search via horseback. Thankfully, neither of these efforts was needed. “It was just once again a good team effort by everybody and we appreciate everybody’s help and all the entities came together and work well together and had a great outcome,” White concluded.
Most, if not all, members of those considered first responders have partaken in training specific to search and rescue from basic skills, such as reading a compass, to more complex skills including tracking and identifying signs. Knowing those serving and protecting Tucker County are well trained and highly dedicated to their jobs, regardless of the capacity, should bring a comfort to the residents and visitors to the area.