Stranded workers, rescuers battle extreme weather

Searchers brave storm after wind destroys shelter, scatters gear

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2008

KODIAK - With winds blowing 50 mph, in near-whiteout conditions, four men threaded their way through a hazardous landscape full of icy ravines, cliffs and ponds. Equipped with GPS receivers and snowshoes, the men would climb to 2,800 feet in what became an exhaustingly long rescue lasting more than 13 hours.

Kerry Felton, Joel Pomerinag, Pat Schmalix and Hal Long, volunteer rescuers for Kodiak Island Search and Rescue, all got the same call from the Alaska State Troopers early Monday morning: Four construction workers were stranded in a blizzard, three of them without proper shelter, atop Kodiak's Sharatin Mountain.

The weather was so poor for a fly-in rescue that the Coast Guard couldn't make it. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Air Station Kodiak ascended to 1,750-feet before low cloud cover, poor visibility and high winds pushed it back.

The rescue volunteers decided to walk in. The Troopers called on Tom Walters, owner of Maritime Helicopters, to take the rescuers as high as they could go.

In a Bell Jet Ranger, navigating 35 mph winds, Walters flew the rescuers up two at a time. He dropped them at 1,400 feet, the cloud ceiling too low to go any higher.

By 3 p.m. Monday, Felton, Pomerinag, Schmalix and Long were on the ground and ready to begin the rescue.

Several hours later, between 6:30 and 7 p.m., the foursome neared the summit and began to search for survivors in visibility sometimes less than two feet.

"You couldn't even see to the end of your headlamp beam," Felton said.

'Sunday was a good day'

George Garcia didn't see the storm coming. In Sunday afternoon's clear, sunny weather, he joked with his friends and coworkers, Dan Davis, Larry Movius and Brian Kincaid, by removing his shirt.

"Just to give the guys a laugh," he said. "I put it back on, of course."

The four men had been deployed by their respective employers - Kincaid by Kodiak Kenai Cable Co. and the rest by Belarde Custom Concrete Company - to erect the first in a series of microwave towers designed to bring communication to Kodiak's rural sites. Sharatin Mountain's tower would serve Ouzinkie and Port Lions.

"Sunday was a good day," Walt Ebell, CEO of Kodiak Kenai Cable Co. said. "They thought they had a window."

Construction was expected to last about four days. The men would camp atop the mountain for the project's duration: Davis, Movius and Garcia in a 21-by-40 foot weather port, Kincaid in a one man tent.

"It started out all right," Movius said. "It was a big gentleman's tent with a barbecue grill, awesome groceries, Christmas lights."

It wasn't long before the situation started to go awry.

First, it was the weather. After a day's work, the winds and snow started to whip up, so the foursome took shelter in the heated port.

Even when they were warm inside the port, Garcia said tensions began to run high as the weather worsened.

"We were not sleeping, we were just looking at each other," he said.

Around midnight, the men decided to hunker down and get some rest inside the weather port.

It was a few hours later, between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m., when the shelter popped open. Snow and wind began to pour inside.

"I looked up and the seam above my head, on the front of the door, opened up. And that's when it got bad," Movius said.

The men tried to hold the port together, but the wind was too strong.

"I looked down and noticed that the tent was jumping off the ground, 6 inches to a foot. It just started to hop," Garcia said.

The men couldn't hold the tent. It blew away. Survival gear - a sleeping bag, food, clothing - began to scatter into the blizzard.

"Our cots flew away like birds," Movius said.

The tent was nowhere to be seen.

"One second, it was there. The next, it was gone," Davis said.

'I was entombed in snow'

The men managed to save their sleeping bags before the port blew away. Movius lost his in the shuffle, but Davis had an extra strapped to his heavy backpack.

"We were all standing in that blizzard, trying to get our gear together," Davis said.

Kincaid went to his tent to radio for help, while the others made a shelter plan.

"I said, 'Grab your shovels, we're gonna go to the dugouts,"' Garcia said.

They dug out two snow caves. Garcia and Movius shared one, Davis had his own 15 feet away. They wrapped themselves in their sleeping bags and slid in.

Garcia went into his cave head first. A mistake, he discovered, when he tried to check on the storm's progress.

"I popped my head out of my mummy bag and I was entombed in snow," Garcia said.

He called to Movius, who reportedly was beginning to suffer frostbite on his hands and feet, to dig him out. Movius did, but he soon lost consciousness.

"At one point, Larry passed out and wasn't answering back," Garcia said. "I shook him and shook him and told him, you gotta stay awake."

Movius recalled the moments before he passed out. He said he wrote his girlfriend's name, Jody, on his sleeping bag with a permanent marker. "I looked at that and then I concentrated. Then I was done," he said.

Garcia managed to revive him, though.

"Whatever he did, he did the right job, because I snapped to," Movius said.

The men spent 11 hours bundled in their snow caves. It wasn't until Kincaid arrived after daybreak, with the news that a rescue team was on its way, that the men emerged.

Garcia said they felt a renewed sense of hope.

They constructed a makeshift shelter with a tarp, behind a cement mixer, and even located a propane torch in the camp's remnants. They used it to heat rocks for warmth.

Movius said the construction of the tent, with the hunt for materials, took about six hours. The day was ending.

"Lo and behold, as soon as we got settled, that's when that beautiful rescue team showed up," Movius said.

The four rescuers, Felton, Pomerinag, Schmalix and Long, had indeed found who they were looking for.

But the rescue was far from over.

'Cold was a relative term'

The rescue party dug Kincaid out of his small tent. They outfitted all the men with clothing, water and food. They then made the decision to walk back down the mountain.

The first three hours were difficult, but relatively swift. The party of eight reached the helicopter landing point - 1,400 feet - at about 8 p.m.

After that, things got complicated. The landscape became increasingly difficult to maneuver. They navigated brush, ravines, creeks, cliffs and rivers.

"You name it," Felton said.

The rescue volunteers said they had no doubt they would make it to the bottom, but members of the group had become so fatigued, progress slowed to a painful degree.

There were times when the party walked little more than half a mile in one hour. All were wet and tired.

"Cold was a relative term," Schmalix said.

An ordeal to see your watch

Steve Wielebski, president of search and rescue and communications coordinator for the rescue, kept in touch with the team via radio at the foot of Sharatin Mountain's road. A broken ankle precluded him from participating in the search.

Communication was spotty at times. Felton, Pomerinag, Schmalix and Long were supposed to check in at every half hour, but that wasn't always possible.

"They're trying to get some headway, they're not looking at their watches," Wielebski said. "It's even an ordeal to look at your watch. You've got gloves on and you're soaking wet."

The landscape also was a problem.

"There was times they'd drop behind rock ledges and lose communications," he said.

There were times when he didn't speak to the rescuers for almost an hour.

As the team struggled, he followed their progress.

"They had slowed to a snail's pace," he said.

'It was endless'

"Up here, down there, zigzag there," Garcia said, describing the terrain. "It was endless."

The rescue team prodded the men forward.

"They had a really good attitude, they were really positive," Garcia said. "They told me to just keep going."

Around 4:30 a.m., the team finally reached the bottom of Sharatin Mountain. The rescue had taken approximately 13 hours.

Medics were on scene. No one was seriously injured. One man transported himself to the hospital, but the rest - rescuers and survivors - went home to sleep and reflect on their experiences.

"I'm so glad to be here today," Movius said.

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