Weather Relents, And Rescuers Snatch Stranded Hiker With Black Hawk Helicopter
BY SARAH R. GREGORY, STAFF WRITER
Warm hugs weren't in short supply Friday afternoon when worried family members were reunited with Eric Farris, a hiker stranded above Margarette Falls for more than 24 hours.
An Army National Guard lima-model Black Hawk helicopter, based in Saulsbury, N.C., safely delivered Farris -- who lives in Ohio and was visiting relatives who recently moved to Greene County -- just before 3:30 p.m. Friday.
Farris appeared to be fatigued, but showed no signs of injury, and was warmly greeted by his mother, Maureen Farris, and his sister, Lynn Doster.
HIKING WITH FAMILY
Rescue personnel at the scene said Farris had been hiking with his nephew, 17-year-old Blake Doster, and another family member both Wednesday and Thursday.
On Thursday, Farris and Doster veered off the Margarette Falls trail toward an area of large rocks.
Rescuers said Friday that Blake Doster fell approximately 20 feet on Thursday, prompting Farris to continue climbing away from the trail in search of a way to reach and assist his nephew.
Instead, however, he found himself stranded on a 5-foot-by-5-foot rock ledge an estimated 300 feet above the base of the trail, where he would remain for more than a day.
A CALL FOR HELP
Doster sustained non-life-threatening injuries, but he was able to walk, and happened to emerge from an area of brush near Andrew Turner, a hobby photographer, who was able to assist with first aid and notify Greene County 911 using his cell phone.
Doster's mother, Lynn Doster, was also telephoned by Turner, and she, too, called 911 for emergency assistance.
The Greeneville Emergency and Rescue Squad received the initial call just after 1:45 p.m. Thursday.
Doster was transported by private vehicle to a local hospital, where he was treated and released.
Rescue squad volunteers focused on locating Farris, and were joined by a climbing crew from the Washington County Rescue Service in an unsuccessful effort to reach him on Thursday.
Attempts to reach him using a Knox County Sheriff's Department helicopter were also unsuccessful, as strong winds funneling between mountain peaks prevented the aircraft from stabilizing.
Conditions on the ground made the effort exceptionally difficult for climbers who attempted the trek to reach Farris as well, since the area is located away from trails and characterized by dense underbrush.
When large rocks -- some reported as being several feet in diameter -- began crumbling near responders, they decided the hiking operation was too dangerous to continue.
Hikers reported being as close as 60 to 80 feet from Farris, however, and could tell he was conscious, alert and apparently uninjured.
After learning that Farris had no food or water supply and only a T-shirt, shorts, ball cap, cigarettes and a lighter, concerns about his condition grew.
Responders could no longer hear or see Farris.
Temperatures Thursday night dipped into the lower 40s, and Rescue Squad volunteers camped at the command post by the trail's base overnight to monitor the situation. Bojangles donated food for rescuers Thursday, and a Red Cross representative brought food Friday.
Rescue Squad volunteers reported Farris was apparently able to build small fires at different times throughout the evening. Weather conditions remained clear through Thursday evening.
WEATHER A CONCERN
By early Friday morning, however, rain and thunderstorms moved into the area, again increasing concerns about Farris' condition.
Greene County Emergency Management Agency Director Bill Brown contacted the Tennessee Army National Guard to arrange for a larger, military Black Hawk helicopter to carry out rescue operations.
With winter storms predicted to move into the state, however, the Tennessee National Guard helicopters -- based in Smyrna -- were grounded.
The Tennessee National Guard, Brown said, assisted in securing assistance from the North Carolina Army National Guard.
At approximately 8:15 a.m. Friday, Brown received confirmation that the Black Hawk helicopter was in Asheville, N.C., fueling up in preparation to travel to Greene County.
BLACK HAWK ARRIVES
After picking up a team of civilian rescuers, the helicopter touched down at a landing zone in a field by a residence off Shelton Mission Road at approximately 9:30 a.m.
After being briefed about the situation by Brown and local responders with the Greeneville Emergency and Rescue Squad and Greene County-Greeneville Emergency Medical Services (EMS), the N.C.-based team lifted-off toward coordinates of Farris' location.
Minutes later, however, they returned, as dense fog and cloud cover obscured their view of the mountain.
For the next several hours, the flight crew waited for conditions to improve while remaining in contact with the National Weather Service.
During that time, the decision was made to begin efforts again to reach Farris on foot, since the hike to the top of the peak from which they planned to rappel down toward him takes from three to five hours.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., with weather conditions still poor and the helicopter unable to reach Farris, the Black Hawk headed back to its Saulsbury, N.C. base.
Hikers reached the top of the peak above Farris and were planning a descend to reach him about the same time the blanket of fog that had prevented helicopter operations began to lift.
When that break in the weather conditions occurred, Brown contacted the National Guard crew in hopes they could return and spare hiking crews additional danger in trying to extract Farris.
Brown's call reached the N.C.-based team as they were fueling the aircraft at a stop in Asheville, N.C., and they received clearance necessary to return to the scene.
AN EFFICIENT OPERATION
Fog lifted for only a few minutes, but the timing perfectly coincided with the second arrival of the air crew just after 3 p.m.
The "killdevils" of the 1st of the 131st Charlie Company in the N.C. Army National Guard and their accompanying civilian rescue technicians executed an impressively quick rescue operation, bypassing the landing zone and traveling directly to Farris' location.
The team practices such rescues on land, water and in various situations at least four times per year and has carried out numerous rescue and recovery operations throughout the region.
Their extensive training paid off Friday, as fewer than 10 minutes later, at 3:15 p.m., rescuers were seen rappelling down from the Black Hawk's hoist to reach Farris.
Eight minutes later at 3:23 p.m., Brown and other responders received word that the crew had successfully lifted Farris from the small ledge.
Within five minutes, the helicopter arrived at the landing zone, and Farris was escorted to his mother and sister by an EMS responder.
He was able to walk on his own from the helicopter to his family, and then to a waiting EMS ambulance to be checked.
EMS personnel could be overheard confirming Farris' condition, excitedly saying, "He's fine! He's fine!" to Farris's relatives and the EMS responders' colleagues.
As a precautionary measure, EMS monitored Farris' body temperature, gave him fluids, then took him to Laughlin Memorial Hospital to be checked.
The timing of the operation, Brown said, was absolutely critical in this case.
He said that, after the N.C. crew was called back to the scene, fog and cloud cover seemed to be forming around the mountain peaks again, increasing his concerns.
"Timing is important in situations like this," Brown said, adding that he was thankful that, upon their second arrival, the helicopter crew spotted Farris immediately.
"Mission accomplished," he said, adding that he was "very thankful" Farris was safely rescued.
"It does my heart good" to see a good resolution to the situation, Brown said.
GRATEFUL FOR VOLUNTEERS
Greeneville Emergency and Rescue Squad volunteers agreed with Brown's sentiments.
Long-time Greeneville Emergency and Rescue Squad member Kevin "Bucky" Ayers, who is also president of the Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads, said Friday that operations such as this highlight how important the organization is.
"These are volunteers who have jobs and families of their own. They go out there and try to help out of the goodness of their hearts," he said.
Farris' family-members felt that spirit on Friday, and thanked those involved for their help.
"This is the best day ever!" Maureen Farris said, thanking rescuers as she rushed to greet her son.