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Anatomy of an Alaska bear mauling rescue

Patti Epler

When a group of teenage outdoor students attacked by a grizzly bear in the Alaska wilderness on July 23 hit the button on their emergency locator device, a government satellite circling 22,300 miles above the northern portion of the globe almost immediately picked up the signal and shot an alert to a control center in Maryland.

Eight minutes later, with the signal properly processed and evaluated, the coordinates of the SOS were redirected to the 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, an Air National Guard unit at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. The time, according to logs kept by the RCC, was 9:05 p.m.

It took a few more seconds and several more transmissions to pin down the details, but emergency response staff soon knew that the personal locator beacon going off about 30 miles east of Talkeetna was registered to the National Outdoor Leadership School, one of the country's most prestigious youth training programs.

It is not an organization known for crying wolf. Still it would be nearly six hours before the first rescuers reached the scene and a full nine hours before all seven backpackers -- two of whom suffered life-threatening injuries in the bear attack -- were finally evacuated.

The back story of how the rescue played out raises some questions about whether a different response was called for or whether different communication devices should have been available to the students in the field. And it might encourage policy makers to re-examine how search-and-rescue missions -- so-called SAR operations -- are now conducted and funded in the 49th state.

A huge swath of Alaska north of the Arctic Circle is covered by North Slope Borough Search and Rescue, which keeps two helicopters at ready in Barrow. But primary responsibility for much of the rest of the state falls to the Alaska State Troopers, who fly only one high-performance rescue helicopter.

Troopers assigned the task of investigating the NOLS emergency beacon had to come from Fairbanks, about a two-hour flight north of Talkeetna. The agency's main helicopter was there instead of at its home base in Anchorage because it had been called to help on another search operation.

The only available trooper pilot, a civilian, had already flown a full day on that search near the community of Anderson and, with little sleep, had to climb back in and make a long night flight to reach the youth group.

After the bear attack, the NOLS group was able to punch a button on a personal locator beacon (PLB) that sent an immediate call for help with their location coordinates. But the signal didn't tell anyone the nature of the emergency. Rescuers had no way of knowing the group had at least two critically injured people. If rescuers had known that information, they might have immediately sent to the scene a fully equipped Alaska National Guard medical team, only 35 flight minutes away in Anchorage, troopers said. And that crew would eventually be called to the scene, but not until eight hours after the PLB button was punched.

Why doesn’t the school, which charges $4,100 per student for the 30-day Alaska trek, give students a satellite phone? Or at least the kind of emergency locator that is capable of sending a pre-programmed message saying medical help is needed?

 Cost is one consideration, NOLS officials say, but they add that there are other important factors involved, too, including training philosophy and how easy it is to use the devices in an emergency.

NOLS says it "greatly appreciates" the way troopers handled the search and rescue operation. And troopers say the NOLS kids did everything they could to provide first aid to the injured and manage the situation after a bear attack that brought terror and tragedy. 

No one is pointing any fingers over this particular mission. But as always in search and rescue operations, there are questions -- including within the response groups and NOLS -- about what, if anything, might have been done differently.

Here then is a look at the rescue effort based on interviews with troopers, RCC officials and the NOLS risk management director, along with their thoughts on why the rescue unfolded the way it did and what might have been done differently -- perhaps even better -- to rescue seven teenagers in trouble in a remote, inaccessible patch of wilderness far from any road.

A grizzly mauls 4 teens

The bear attack occurred about 8:30 p.m. and immediately afterward, the students have said, they concentrated first on setting up a camp and tending to the wounded. Then they hit the button on the PLB they had been told never to use unless in a life-threatening situation. The whole point of NOLS training, the organization's leaders say, is to teach young participants to learn to rely on themselves when they're lost or in any other sort of trouble. Only in the direst circumstances is it considered acceptable to call for help.

After the students activated their PLB, it took a few brief seconds for the signal to be spotted by a geostationary satellite maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A European satellite flying at a lower altitude than NOAA's GOES-11 then pinpointed the exact location of the teens. The satellites beamed this information to the SARSAT Mission Control Center based at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland. The signal was in turn relayed to the RCC in Anchorage, an action that took about eight minutes, RCC officials said.

By 9:05 p.m. Alaska time, the RCC knew there was a problem in the Talkeetna Mountains and that it was a NOLS group that appeared to be in trouble.

Kalei Rupp, a spokeswoman for RCC, said logs kept by the on-duty crew show that within a minute of identifying the registered owner of the PLB, RCC called the NOLS contact list and put a NOLS official on a teleconference with Alaska State Troopers. NOLS was able to quickly figure out which group of students was carrying the PLB in question, tell troopers its policy on PLB use and infrom everyone the group was on its own without adult instructors.

"It's then up to troopers to decide what course of action to take," Rupp said. The troopers are legally responsible for overseeing search and rescue operations in Alaska except on certain federal lands and off shore, said Capt. Jeff Laughlin of the Alaska Department of Public Safety. Troopers can hand SAR operations off to others, but they are the go-to agency when an emergency signal goes off. Often, as in this case, the agency is called into action with scant information.

The tough decisions on how to respond

"All we had was an alert from the personal locator, and we didn't know there was a mauling," Laughlin said. He said troopers get quite a few alerts this time of year and that many of them are false alarms. A beacon might go off accidentally in someone's backpack. Sometimes they're activated by people too tired to hike the rest of the way out of the wilderness. Often, NOAA records indicate, they are turned on by Alaskans with snowmachines or four-wheelers broken down or stuck.

Only the day before the NOLS incident, the SARSAT system had picked up a signal coming from tundra 14 miles southeast of Barrow. It turned out to be from a man who'd stuck his snowmachine in mud. The North Slope Borough flew a helicopter out to pick him up. It was a not uncommon sort of rescue.

With little known about the particulars of the NOLS situation, the case was assigned to a trooper at the Talkeetna post, the closest to where the signal originated, at about 9:30 p.m., Laughlin said.

NOLS director of risk management, Drew Leemon, said once the signal goes out NOLS has no choice but to let authorities do their jobs. He's appreciative of the way the troopers handled this rescue and pointed out that getting everyone safe in nine hours is actually pretty remarkable. Some people wait days for rescue, he noted.

Still, he said, NOLS students are instructed the PLBs are strictly for life-threatening situations. Rescuers could have safely assumed medical help was needed if the NOLS group was signaling for help, he said.

"It's not a question that it is a medical emergency or life-threatening," Leemon said. "It should be received in that regard."

He sympathizes, however, with rescuers nationwide who are wrestling with a growing number of false alarms. That has dulled what should otherwise be a sharp response. People who use PLBs unnecessarily are creating a serious problem for others, Leemon said.

Sometimes the 'emergency' is merely a tow call

"What's happening is people are triggering their (PLB) because their vehicle is stuck or they forgot their tent or whatever," Leemon said. "It's watering down their response. It’s a lot like crying wolf."

"Our belief when we purchased (the PLBs) is that when the agency received the signal they would treat it like a life or death situation," he said.

NOLS students carry a device called a McMurdo FastFind. Leemon said NOLS decided to purchase the devices about two years ago after evaluating available technology and taking into consideration other issues. The school tested another popular communications device called SPOT that allows owners to pre-program several messages, including one that can be sent regularly just to let family and friends know the hiker is all right. The SPOT can send the message as an email or a text to a phone and can also send an SOS. Like the FastFind PLB, the device emits a signal that includes location coordinates so rescuers can quickly find the person in trouble. School officials preferred the FastFind, however, because they appeared more reliable in the places NOLS operates its courses, he said. The position of the SPOT-tracking satellites is known to create some areas of weak or non-existent coverage in Alaska.

The FastFinds, Leemon said, also fit better with NOLS' notion of how to best teach students self reliance and independent travel in the outdoors. Leemon said one of the drawbacks of the SPOT was its ability to send out a message that students might find too easy to fall back on.

"We didn’t want them sending out a message like, 'Oh, we made a wrong turn can you come get us,'" he said. "And we didn’t want them to accidentally activate the SOS function.

"SPOTS are really good for some people but we decided that, when compared with the SARSAT system, that would be a system that required the students to really think that this is a life threatening situation and I am going to have to activate this," he said.

There's also a question of cost. Although FastFind PLBs cost more initially than SPOT units, they are cheaper in the long run because SPOT requires a monthly or annual monitoring fee.

 Leemon said NOLS has a need for between 250 and 300 emergency communications devices in the field. "One of the things we have to think about as a school and as a business is what can we realistically and pragmatically put into the field," he said. The same goes for satellite phones, which are expensive to purchase and operate.

Technology is great, but costly

"A satellite phone might be the ultimate device because it gives you two-way communication but you have to consider the cost," Leemon said. NOLS does have satellite phones. One goes with the instructors of every class in the field, Leemon said. In this case, however, the instructors were not with the class. The students had been judged competent and allowed to go off on their own to finish the last days of a 30-day trek. Every group of students in this situation carries one PLB, Leemon said.

Laughlin and Lt. Kat Peterson, who handles many search and rescue operations for the troopers, suggested the ideal situation is to carry both an emergency locator device, such as a PLB that broadcasts your location, and a two-way communications device, like a satellite phone or the text-messaging locator.

"The more sophisticated equipment you bring with you in the field the better for us," Laughlin said. Peterson said being able to engage in a conversation with the person in trouble is a big help in deciding what resources to deploy. No matter the situation, she added, the more information rescuers have the better.

Given the significant number of calls for help troopers now get from standard cell phones in the less remote parts of Alaska, she suggested people learn to read the GPS signal available to many of those devices so they can tell rescuers their exact location. Most phones have some type of mapping system that can be helpful yet, "it's amazing the number of people who don’t know how to get to it," she said.

"I don’t know that there's a panacea out there for every situation," Laughlin added. "These guys (the NOLS group) had more than many have. And that's a good thing."

A search-and-rescue launched with little known

But on July 23, with the only information in hand the fact that an emergency signal had been sent from the rough terrain in the Talkeetna area, troopers had to make a crucial decision on how to respond. The state has only one helicopter, known as Helo 1, equipped for search and rescue missions. And even then it's not suitable to respond to a full medical emergency, as turned out to be the case in the NOLS operation.

Summer is a busy time for search crews, too, so it wasn't unusual that Helo 1 and its veteran pilot, a civilian named Mel Nading, were already tied up on a search in the Interior. On July 22, troopers had received a report that 43-year-old Edward Neeley of Anderson was missing. His vehicle was found along the Nenana River and ground searchers along with fixed-wing aircraft had failed to turn up any sign of him in the surrounding area.

Nading and Helo 1 were called in on the second day of that search. They found nothing either, and Neeley remains missing.

After a day of searching for Neeley, Nading flew to Fairbanks to spend the night, expecting to refuel the helicopter and resume the Anderson search the next day. "He'd parked the aircraft, shut everything down and gone to his hotel room for the night," Laughlin said.

Nading went to sleep early, pooped from his day of flying. But he was soon called back to work on the NOLS rescue. Nading is one of two pilots certified to fly the Helo 1 used on rescue missions, and he was the only one available in the Fairbanks area.

Laughlin said the department is concerned about the safety of its pilots and cognizant of the need for sleep. "Some of these guys would work around the clock if they felt like they were needed," he said.

So calling a pilot back before he gets a full rest is carefully considered. Nading’s flight required approval from the director's office, Laughlin said.

Roused from his sleep, Nading had to ready both himself and the helicopter for the new operation. Laughlin didn’t know precisely how long it took Nading to get up and back in the air, but the RCC log shows troopers notified the Elmendorf center that their aircraft had departed Fairbanks at 11:48 p.m., nearly three hours after the PLB signal had first been received.

Launching rescues in Alaska takes time

Laughlin said that's not an inordinate amount of time to have passed, considering Nading had been sound asleep when he got the call. "Unlike the military that has pilots hot-bunking and ready to jump out and into the aircraft, our pilot is literally in bed and he's put the aircraft to bed for the night," he said.

Besides weather checks and pre-flighting the helicopter, Nading also had to refuel the aircraft, Laughlin said.

Fuel is heavy and the helicopter is normally not filled until officials can assess the resources needed for the next mission and figure out how much weight, including rescuers and equipment, the aircraft might need to carry.

Once Nading left Fairbanks, he stopped for fuel about 45 minutes later near the Parks Highway village of McKinley Park and then headed for Talkeetna, about an hour away. Once there, Nading spent about 15 to 20 minutes on the ground picking up Trooper Michael Shelley, the officer who would be flown to the NOLS camp site.

Shelley was ready and waiting when Nading arrived, Laughlin said. The flight to the search area took the pair only another 15 minutes or so.

RCC logs show a call at 2:51 a.m. on July 24 from troopers reporting they'd found a party of seven, four of whom had been attacked by a bear. The troopers reported the injuries were beyond their capabilities to address and requested assistance, according to Kalei Rupp, the spokeswoman for the RCC.

Now it was the Alaska Air Guard’s turn to roust crews out of bed and get them moving toward the camp where two seriously injured teenagers were being tended by Shelley and an EMT-trained NOLS student named Samuel Boas, a 16-year-old from Westport, Conn. He is credited with helping keep alive the most seriously injured.

While the RCC was working to get the Guard in Anchorage into the air, Nading and Shelley were loading the four least injured NOLS students into the trooper helicopter. Nading took them to Anchorage while Shelley remained behind on guard against the possible return of the bear and to help Boas with the critically injured teens.

Second rescue helicopter launched

At 2:58 a.m., RCC "tasked" the Air Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron, Rupp said. The squadron flies the HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter and carries medically trained pararescue jumpers who are part of what is called a Guardian Angel team. The rescue squadron crews are trained to find and rescue badly injured pilots in war zones. In this case, two PJs and four air crew members were needed to carry out the civilian mission.

It took them until 4:20 a.m. to get airborne. The RCC always has a crew on alert, so it's never a question of having to find a pilot and crew. But in the middle of the night, even the RCC has to summon on-call crew members from their homes and get them to the base.

Rupp said the crews allow a three-hour window for response. That covers the time needed to wake people, get everyone to the base, load the gear appropriate for the mission and get the aircraft ready to fly. The response time of an hour and 20 minutes on July 24 was "pretty quick," she said.

And only 30 minutes after launching from Elmendorf, the RCC crew reported they were five minutes from "the target" and in touch with the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage. There is a helipad at the hospital where the Guard can land to drop off the badly injured. By 5:40 a.m., the RCC crew had the survivors aboard and was en route to Providence where they landed at 6:10 a.m., RCC logs show.

A successful rescue

Laughlin said he considers the rescue effort a success and the length of time it took to reach the kids and get them to safety not overly long, given the circumstances.

"From our vantage point, we were pretty happy with it," he said.
As is often the case, it wasn't until the trooper got to the site that it was clear what had happened and what sort of stepped-up response was then needed, he said.
"We generally don’t know what we have until we get there," Laughlin said. "My impression of this whole thing was that it was handled very well by everybody involved."

Alaska Dispatch writer Craig Medred contributed to this story.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com