On March 19th, 2022 at 5:47 PM, I received a call about a family that had lost sight of their son while hiking. I stopped eating my broccoli and swiftly put on my Emergency Management gear while also making contact with a Latimer County Dispatcher to receive more information on what was occurring. From here I learned that the family had lost sight of their son while hiking in the Buffalo Mountain region. After making contact with the dispatcher, I began to head south on Highway 2 from Wilburton, OK. An hour later at 6:40 PM, I arrived on the scene and made contact with the Talihina Fire Department Search & Rescue team who briefed me on the situation at hand. The Talihina Fire Department informed me that the family had gone hiking at 11 AM that morning and lost sight of their son around 2 PM in the Devils Kitchen region of Buffalo Mountain. After receiving this information and documenting it in WebEOC, I began coordinating with the Talihina Fire Department SAR team on how we could go about searching for the missing hiker. Problems quickly arose when we learned that the rescue vehicles could not handle the steep, unstable, and rocky terrain. However, a solution was found soon after. The Talihina Fire Department had UTVs for Search and Rescue events back in Talihina. As a result, I suggested that the Talihina Fire Department travel back to Talihina to acquire the UTVs. The idea was that Talihina Fire Department could use the UTVs to start performing Search And Rescue operations.
2-hours into the rescue mission we saw very little success, however, even with the sun setting our determination to find the missing hiker alive was at an all-time high. By 8:25 PM Oklahoma Forestry and Choctaw Forestry had arrived on the scene. CAM (Christian Aid Ministries) was also sending an SAR team to our location with thermal drone capabilities. McAlester Regional AirCare had also been requested to help in our mission to
find the hiker and by 8:40 PM they were in the area searching for the missing hiker. The one downside was that the Helicopter from McAlester Regional AirCare only had night vision and spotlight capabilities rather than thermal capabilities. With this in mind, at 9 PM the helicopter spotted a black object on their night vision that was moving. Due to
only having night vision, they were unable to verify that it was a human, however, the location where they spotted this "black object" was only 2 to 3 miles from where the family had last seen their son. With this brand new information, Forestry units began searching nearby cabins as well as the area where the helicopter saw the black object. Talihina Fire
Department began to close in on this area as well. Around 9:25 PM, CAM SAR arrived on the scene with an enclosed trailer that they'd use as a mobile command center. The CAM SAR team began collaborating with myself and other agencies to get an idea as to where the missing hiker had last been seen so that they could deploy a drone as well as people on the ground. Just after 10 PM, I received a call from the Krebs Police Department informing me that they were sending a unit with thermal drone capabilities. Moments later I received another call from the McCurtain County Emergency Management Director telling me that he was also en route and bringing a thermal drone. These two resources were requested by the State Operations Chief at Oklahoma
Emergency Management to assist us as the result of me documenting the event throughout the night on WebEOC and coordinating with my Oklahoma Emergency Management Area Coordinator. At 11:10 PM, CAM SAR team members utilized 5 UTVs to bring groups of SAR members down into the trails where they'd start hiking to try and find the missing hiker while CAM, Krebs Police Department, and McCurtain County EM used thermal drones to search the area for the missing hiker. 30 minutes later at 11:40 PM, a voice came over my handheld radio stating that the missing hiker had been found and that the rescuers were in the process of extracting him. I asked if the hiker needed medical treatment and thankfully the rescuers responded saying that the hiker was uninjured. Talihina Fire Department brought the missing hiker back to our staging area just after 12:10 AM where he was reunited with his family. The next day on March 20th, at 4:52 PM, I received a text message from the mother thanking me for rescuing her son. She and her family were in complete awe of the collaboration, dedication, and precision between my agency (Latimer County Emergency Management) and the other 11 agencies that responded.
Learning from our failures
While we were successfully able to rescue the missing hiker, I noticed a lot of issues during our rescue mission. First and foremost, Latimer County does not have a Search and Rescue team. This meant that we were unable to activate an SAR team immediately within the county that could have responded within 20 to 30 minutes of me receiving the call. Something that can be learned from this is that Latimer County needs a Search And Rescue team as people go missing a lot while hiking due to the geographic features of the county. Secondly, while we have resources in place that we can request, not having a drone with thermal capabilities on hand for immediate activation caused our response time to be limited as we were waiting on resources that had thermal drones so that we could search areas at night. As a result, there needs to be an agency in Latimer County (preferably the EMA or Sheriffs office) that can successfully deploy and operate a thermal drone this way they can hopefully cut down on both the response and recovery phases. In this last sentence, I want to say thank you to all of the agencies that responded to this incident. Without all of you, this rescue mission could've ended differently. Thank you to the Latimer County Sheriff's Office, Talihina Fire Department, Christian Aid Ministries, McAlester Air Care, McCurtain County Emergency Management, Krebs Police Department, Oklahoma State and Choctaw Forestry, Buffalo Valley Fire Department, Wilburton Fire Department, and Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
About the writer: Michael Thornton graduated from Rose State College majoring in Emergency Management. Currently, he is the Director for Tillman County Emergency Management and is an Oklahoma Emergency Management Association member.