Runaway student becomes lost
March 2005. Year 2 of my campaign to reduce the number of students who elope from the school, or at least keep them safer when they do leave. It’s been a slow slog through the mud of tradition and inertia. For about 15 years students had been leaving the The Family Foundation School. More than 75% are back in 8 hours or less. People viewed running away as part of the experience, part of the process for the 40-60 students every year who leave. Most don’t have a plan, they get mad and impulsively run off campus.
Over the years, the few students who had got into serious trouble, didn’t get into trouble near the school. It found them after they’d made it back to the cities and suburbs they called home. I could get people to admit that there was a chance of injury in the woods that surrounded our campus, but I guess people felt the chance was slight enough.
I don’t want you to get the idea that we did nothing when a student took off. We had adequate procedures. We called the state, sent cars patrolling the roads and villages in our area. And, by year 2 we were also routinely following the higher risk students into the woods. Several staff were doing just that when I left the campus at 4:30 PM on my way to take my practical exam at the Hancock .
It’s all about the kids. I joined a Search and Rescue Team to learn about SAR to make the campus safer. The team required first aid training. I signed up for the EMT course because it was close to home.
When I came back from my test at 9:30 that evening. the boy was still missing. It was 17 degrees and I was concerned. The boy had left with only sneakers–the mountains were still snow covered. The staff following his tracks, clearly visible in the snow, had come back in cold and exhausted. They reported his tracks heading south toward the Delaware river following a stream bed. If he stayed on that course he would come to a road in a few miles. We sent a car to the point where the stream met the road. There were summer houses along that road but it was unlikely he would find any of them occupied or any traffic this time of year.
…remember, Search is an Emergency…
I called my colleague, Dawn, she had an operational search dog, Taz. I wanted her to bring him to work the next day. Luck, God, or the force was with us. When I called Dawn, she just happened to be on the other line with her husband Jeff, an experienced search manager. Jeff heard my report through Dawn and he reminded me of how urgetn the situation was. I told him I wanted to go back out to look but that the State Police recommended against it. Jeff was great. He encouraged me to contact them again, explain that we really thought the student was now a lost person, not a runaway and that he was in real danger.
The state police also had 15 years of experience with our students, and their initial attitude was similar to hours. The kids are always OK. Denial was everywhere. We were acting like those victims of Katrina who stayed in their homes in spite of the warnings. After all, they must have figured, they had survived plenty of hurricanes in the past. They just couldn’t imagine this one being any worse. Something in my demeanor must have changed after I spoke to Jeff. My brother and my husband were suddenly easy to convince. The tide was turning. People were starting to see the situation as a true emergency.
I made plans to go out to look. My brother (Mike Argiros), my husband (Sid Parham) and the state police were all concerned that I would also become a victim. I had been on my SAR team for about 18 months at the time. I was pretty good with land navigation. I knew how to dress for the weather, use snowshoes (There was 2 feet of crusty snow on the ground), and was comfortable in the woods at night. Jim, another counselor at the school, a man with some military in his background was going with me. We took two back packs filled with a list of items recommended by the National Association for Search and Rescue. I was off on my first real search.
The radios we used every day at the school had a limited range. We set up radio relays and I promised not to go out of radio contact.
A developing sense of urgency
Jim and I searched for about an hour and a half. We could see where the student had fallen through the ice. I remember thinking “Now he is wet and cold.” It was a beautiful, clear night and Jim remarked that he was enjoying being outside. We were both sure that our student was safe, that he had already made it out of the woods. I had an image in my head of us following his footsteps all the way to the road and saftey.
That’s not what happened. First, I noticed his stride got shorter. Then he started to wander from the stream bed. The stream ran between two steep mountains. He wandered up the eastern slope of one 250-400 feet, gradually change direction, cross the stream and climb the western slope of the other and back again, making large circles. Now, I started to be afraid for him. I knew that he wasn’t thinking clearly. Hypothermia was having its effect. I radioed that fact back to Mke and Sid. At this point, they notified the Hancock Fire Department.
We were on our third trip up the western slope when we stopped to change batteries in a head lamp. Our lights flashed across the valley. The student saw them and called out to us from across the valley.
15 minutes later we located our student sitting at the base of a tree. He was about 300 feet above the the stream bed on a steep bank about 1/2 mile from where my husband was stationed on the road by the Delaware river. His feet were frozen solid. He’s lost both sneakers and had been walking in socks. His sweatpants had falling down around his legs and were also frozen solid since had sat down. He could not walk or separate his feet. He was shivering violently. He told us that at some point he’d given up and was going “uphill” because he thought the school was just over the mountain. He did not realize he was walking in circles. But he had just given up and sat down prepared to die.
The State Police had stopped to talk to my husband and were about to leave when I radioed in that we had the boy and needed transport. After that, Sid told me, it turned into a major scene on that little road, with an ambulance, a few rescue vehicles, a few patrol cars and lots of people. How to get them to us? I had a GPS with me and could have given my position in UTM’s or lat-long but nobody out there had a map or a GPS. Instead I described our position to my brother who relayed it to a member of the fire department who was also a local logger. As a back-up, Jim left me with the student and hiked out to the road so that he could lead rescuers to us.
Meanwhile I fed my student, dressed him in the extra clothes from my pack, wrapped him in space blankets and started a very poor fire. It took over an hour for snow mobiles to reach us.
I spoke to a member of the Hancock–TJ Rosengrant–over the school radio. He asked me how my patient was doing. Although I’d taken his pulse, counted his respirations, checked his extremities and decided to leave them alone and leave rewarming them to the professionals, checked his pupils and ascertained his level of consciousness, as I was trained, until that moment the idea of having a “patient” hadn’t occurred to me. It was a shock and I dropped the radio. It went skittering down the hill and I was forced to climb down to retrieve it and then back up again.
Even with the fire, the student and my first patient (I’d passed my exam) was getting colder. I got under the space blanked with him, holding on to him to try to give him whatever body heat I had. But I’d gotten sweaty snowshoeing to him and now I was cold too.
Snowmobiles & A lesson in fire-making
The side hill we were on was too steep for the snow mobiles to climb. I heard them stop in the distance. I radioed to Mike, thinking they might be lost. He relayed the difficulty back to me and assured me that they could see my fire. I relaxed. The next think I saw was a very tall man in logging boots all bundled up. Actually, the first thing I saw was the heel of his boot as he used it to clear away the snow on a patch of ground next to my small fire which he gently moved over.
“If you want to build a fire in the snow,” he said, “you have to start with bare ground.”
I’d heard that voice before. He took his hood back from his face. In the late 1970s my family moved to Hancock from the Bronx. When we were both teenagers, Mark McGraw had delivered fire wood and found me frustrated and cold, trying to start a fire in the wood stove. He’d come up behind me with a rolled up news paper. He lit it and shoved it up the chimney saying.
“If you want to start a fire in a cold stove, you have to heat the flu.” I don’t remember him ever saying anything else to me and I didn’t seem him again from that time until this.
His name is Mark McGraw. He and Greg Gill got us out of there. But now without the help of some more stuff from my pack. At the time the fire department didn’t have vehicle capable of transporting a stokes litter. We used my tarp to carry and drag my student down the hill where we hacked through the frozen sweat pants and carefully got his one leg over the side of Mark’s snowmobile. Greg and I followed.
I was really very cold and I probably should have let TJ take me to the hospital to be checked but I didn’t despite the fact that he yelled at me to do so. Instead, Sid took me home and I took a bath. The student had very good circulation and great care at Lourdes Hospital. He was there for about a week. They warmed those feet gradually and they were OK.
That search was quite dramatic and it changed people’s opinions. The new procedures at the school got serious attention after that. We reduced the number of incidents by 30% and the SAR K-9 training program at the school took off.
This week it will be four years since that day. Since then, the SAR team I joined disbanded and I started another, Eagle Valley Search Dogs where you can read about other searches our team has been on. Of course, I am totally committed to Search and Rescue since then. I feel very grateful that I was able to be a part of saving someone’s life.