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'Perfect storm' of deadly conditions tested Alaska pararescuers

Craig Medred

At the time Don Erbey's plane smacked down high on the Knik Glacier Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010, Alaska Air National Guard Tech Sgt. Angel Santana believes he was probably watching soccer, or "futbol" as its known back home in his native Guatemala. Maj. Jesse Peterson was sitting around "doing homework or whatever it was," as best he remembers. Both men, along with Master Sgt. Al Lankford and Tech Sgt. Chris Uriarte, have stronger recollections of the small but important details that came with the first report of Erbey's accident.

There was a Piper Cherokee down in the Chugach Range north of Anchorage. Five people had survived the impact and were still alive. They needed rescue, and they needed it soon. "We heard they were not dressed for the weather," Peterson said.

As always in these situations, there was a sense of urgency, but no particular worry about the job ahead. The pararescuemen of the 212th Rescue Squadron, PJs as they are commonly called in the 49th state, tend to think of their Alaska missions as "training." What they do up here is hard and dangerous, but it does not compare to the dangers they are preparing for in future military missions. Air Force PJs are tasked with the difficult and dangerous job of going behind enemy lines to recover pilots shot down in combat. In the "Rescue Season,'' author Bob Drury describes the PJs as the warriors "frequently referred to in the corridors of the Pentagon as "the Special Forces you've never heard of."

"In contrast to the SEALS and Green Berets, who number in the thousands, there are no more than 400 PJs scattered around the world ... So demanding are the physical and mental rigors of (their) selection course that it is not uncommon for a class of 90-odd candidates to graduate fewer than a dozen. These few survivors then enter The Pipeline, 18 months of even more grueling physical and medical training designed to push them beyond their normal limits."

This training never stops, either. On a stormy fall day above a hostile Cook Inlet, it is not uncommon for a group of PJs to be found parachuting out of the back of a four-engine C-130 Hercules cargo plane into the cold, dark water below where, hopefully, a self-inflating Zodiac dumped from the plane along with them will perform as expected.

Likewise, you might encounter a group of these guys heading off into a blizzard in May high on 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, where the environment is in some ways even more hostile than in the Inlet. Ordinary mountaineers are well advised to avoid following them up the mountain into a gathering storm because the PJs train hard -- very, very hard.

PJ training is vigorous in the hopes it will make Alaska rescue missions comparatively easy. And for Alaska-trained PJs, these rescues sometimes do involve little more than hopping aboard a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter flown by some of the best pilots in the world for a ride out to find a lost snowmachiner out of gas, or to pick up a hiker whose fallen in the mountains and broken an ankle, a leg or worse. Trained medics, the PJs have used their experience in emergency medicine to stabilize many of the inept or simply unlucky before loading them aboard the helicopter for a life-saving medevac. The PJs' expectation on this Sunday afternoon was for a pretty standard retrieval along those lines.

"The original plan was that we were just going to pick them up," Uriarte said. "We were at the section waiting for the helicopter to arrive" within 30 to 45 minutes of the call out, Santana added. By then, a National Guard HC-130 was already in the air over Erbey's crashed, single-engine plane. The HC-130 would fly top cover to coordinate what was expected to be a pretty tame operation, all things considered.

Mother Nature quickly slaughtered that expectation.

The Gulf of Alaska storm that had roared in to force Erbey's plane out of the sky was now hammering the glacier. Winds in excess of 50 mph swirled snow and rain into a white nothingness. The helicopter pilots, flying on instruments most of the time, spent hours looking for holes in the clouds that would allow a glacier landing. When that proved impossible, two attempts were made to drop supplies to Erbey and his four stranded passengers, Fred and Mary Jan Lantz, and their adult sons Patrick and David. Unfortunately, neither drop got close enough for the Erbey or the Lantzes to see, let alone retrieve.

Dropping supplies to an unseen target is difficult, Santana noted, and "the winds didn't help." Down in the wreckage of the airplane, Erbey, an Alaskan of more than three decades, was counseling his Galveston, Tex. passengers that everything would eventually turn out OK in the midst of a flight seeing tour with the friend of a relative that become the Alaska adventure from hell.

"We were terrified," Mary Jan said.

Above the site of the crash-landing, the rescue team circled in the C-130, talking with Erbey on his airplane radio and getting both good news and bad news. Erbey reported no one had been seriously injured, but they weren't equipped to spend long on a storm-pounded glacier. The plane lacked a survival kit, and the crash survivors were only lightly clothed. Worst of all, they had no way to melt snow to make water, and without water, a human can last for only days. They could and would eat snow, but eating snow is a difficult trade off. The high number of calories required to melt it in the body helps push one deeper and deeper into hypothermia, which is merely an alternative to dying from dehydration.

As the Pave Hawk bounced around in the stormy air above the plane wreck, and the crew of the C-130 debriefed Erbey, the PJs began to recognize there wasn't going to be any way to get to these people by helicopter anytime soon. The mission required a different approach. "We realized we needed to go back to the section and reconfigure," Maj. Peterson said.

Modern tech no match for Mother Nature

The PJs were going to have to go in on foot. Instead of a glacier landing near the crash site, the new plan was to drop the PJs a few miles away to battle up Knik Glacier through the blinding storm. Around 6 p.m., the helicopter turned away from the glacier and headed back to Elmendorf Air Force Base so rescuers could grab skis, snowshoes, cargo sleds, tents, sleeping bags, extra clothing, water and food. "I think we had enough food for four days,"

Uriarte said. It was all loaded in the helicopter and by about 8 p.m. they were headed back toward the glacier, the Alaska summer sun still shining bright in the west. At the Knik, the pilots were able to drop the four PJs near 6,000 feet about four miles from the crash site.

Military pararescue specialists can run four miles in under 30 minutes in normal conditions. Running four miles 2,500 feet up a mountain would, of course, take longer, say maybe an hour. But these were not normal conditions.

"Horrendous" was the word Peterson used to describe them. "We knew it was going to be a long trek," he said. "We had two sled loads of gear divided up into two sled teams, so each rope team towed a 90-pound minimum sled." That's a tough chore, but the PJs did have a couple things going for them. Lankford is a giant of a man, a 6'7" tower of muscle, and Uriarte is a tank. Muscles bulge beneath his T-shirt like he's a modern-day Sgt. Rock. Santana and Peterson look average by comparison, but then again, some of the toughest PJs in the state are pretty average looking. PJs Bobby Schnell and Chris Robertson do not appear physically imposing but they are animals, multiple winners of the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic race. The classic is a multi-day, cross-country foot race so difficult few are brave enough to enter, and those who do must sign a release acknowledging the race could easily kill them. Suffice to say these are tough guys.

So when a PJ describes the weather as "horrendous," mere mortals might just want to think of it as "impossible." What they were now heading into now, indeed, might have been thought of as some sort of Mission Impossible. The PJs would be fighting headwinds of 50 mph and greater as they wallowed upward in near zero visibility through rain-softened, knee-deep, wet snow on the surface of a glacier laced with sled-swallowing, man-eating crevasses.

"Most of the time, I couldn't see past the tips of my skis," Uriarte said later. "You couldn't see the crevasses until you were right on them,'' Santana added. The hiking on skis fitted with climbing skins was so ponderous that Peterson at one point thought walking might be easier. He took his skis off and tried a couple steps. "I punched through up to my thighs," he said. So much for that idea.

He put the skis back on and wallowed forward. The route wound in and out around crevasses, requiring the PJs to go miles out of their way to make one mile toward the downed aircraft. They worried about snow bridges collapsing and dumping one of them in a hole. At one point, the route up took them between a gaping crevasse and a house-sized serac that rose high above before disappearing into the storm.

Everyone knew the risks here. If the warm winds, wet snow and rain were to bring any part of that serac down, falling ice would almost certainly knock them off their thin pathway and into the crevasse. The odds are low of anyone surviving that sort of accident.

"It was one of those times you just had to suck it up," Uriarte said.
"We sensed the survivors were not going to make it through the night," Peterson added, a thought that drove the men onward and upward into fading light and the storm until they could go no more. Having been on the move for hours without a break, with the long Alaska day finally going dark, Lankford -- the most Alaska experienced of the group -- called a halt.

The PJs were tired, soaked from sweat and melted snow, and dehydrated. They all knew they hadn't been drinking enough water. The nearness of the crash scene had fooled them. Santana said he didn't pay much attention to hydrating because he'd figured it wouldn't be that long until they got to Erbey's plane. "We had one Nalgene (liter) of water," he said.

Fatigued and cramping from lack of fluids, they knew they needed to drink. They put up a single, small, two-man tent; pig-piled inside, fired up a stove and started melting snow. "We ate some dry oatmeal too,'' Uriarte said. Outside the tent, the weather was only getting worse, with winds blowing up to 70 knots. The men rested as best they could sitting upright in the over-stuffed tent. By 5 a.m., with the day lightening, they decided it was time to get on the move again.

It would have been easier to quit, but quitting wasn't an option. The four PJs were now in a survival situation of their own. Their only real alternatives were to dig in and wait for the storm to ease or keep going. Duty dictated the latter. Duty is a demanding master. The day would prove difficult from the start and only get worse.

"We just kept going," Uriarte said. The weather conditions were Alaska awful, the wet snow melting on arrival and turning to 33-degree water. "It wasn't freezing; it would hit and turn to water and leak into our boots," Uriarte said. By 5 or 6 p.m., having slogged upwards for almost 12 straight hours, the PJs knew they were near the wrecked plane. Their GPS coordinates placed them at the location of the crash.

Only one small problem, it wasn't there. They decided to split, Peterson and Uriarte in one rope team, Lankford and Santana in the other, so that they could search a greater area. The two parties faded from each other's view in the storm. They lost radio contact as well. "Our batteries were cold soaked, so we couldn't communicate with each other," Peterson said. Both teams circled around the coordinates for Erbey's plane. Uriarte and Peterson were the lucky duo to find it first.

"It was like angels appearing," Mary Jan Lantz said of their arrival. "We were in a total white out. They just appeared out of nowhere." Erbey remembers getting ready to settle in to shiver away another night when he saw shadows, and said to himself, "Thank God.''

"They were as ecstatic to see us as we were to see them," Peterson said. "They thought it was all over," Uriarte added.

It was far from all over. The PJs had found the plane, and they had with them warm gear for the survivors and a stove with which to melt snow for water, but Uriarte and Peterson were in tough shape themselves -- hypothermic, suffering from some minor frostbite, and worried about what might have happened to Lankford and Santana, last seen wandering off between the many crevasses on the glacier. There really wasn't much time for worrying about any of this, though. There were tasks that needed to be done immediately.

First priority was to warm everyone. Uriarte and Peterson made the crash survivors were out of the weather in the fuselage of Erbey's plane, which was in near-perfect condition despite the crash. They gave the survivors what warm gear they could. Then they started getting their own camp set up and the stove going to melt snow to make warm water to drink, a quick body warming technique.

"I never knew warm water could taste so good,'' Mary Jan said.

Uriarte and Peterson would have liked to pull on dry clothes, but all theirs were soaked and would basically stay that way for days. "We were wet," Peterson said, "like jumped in a pool kind of wet." "All you could do was ring out your socks and put them back on," Uriarte said.

But at least they'd finally reached the crash.

"It had been exhausting," Uriarte said. Peterson, who has done a couple Ironman triathlons, compared the effort to doing two of them back to back. Their effort was visible to everyone.

"They were not in good shape," Mary Jan said.

Rest would take care of that, though, Peterson and Uriarte knew. This was why they trained. This was why they stayed in top physical condition. That night they made camp under a wing of the downed airplane. As they crawled into the tent, still damp, the temperature was rapidly dropping far below freezing. But they had warmed themselves and knew that given a few hours rest they'd wake ready to take on the next challenge. Their only remaining worry centered on their still missing colleagues, Lankford and Santana.

Where were those guys?

Contact Craig Medred at cmedred(at)alaskadispatch.com