Wednesday, Oct 3, 2012
On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 26th, park dispatch received a phone call from a woman who reported that her aunt and uncle had gone hiking in the Mill Creek area outside St. Joe on Saturday, five days earlier, but that only her uncle had returned. The creek is a tributary of the Buffalo River and part of it flows through the park. An interagency investigation was begun and the man was brought in for an interview. Based on his description of where he thought he and his sister had been hiking, interviewers assigned high probabilities of area (POAs) to corridors of Mill Creek outside the park boundaries and focused their initial search efforts there. Teams searched for the remainder of Wednesday’s daylight hours and into the evening, but suspended searching a few hours after dark. The next morning, teams resumed searching and ranger Justin Gibbs reported to the incident as the NPS liaison. Gibbs coordinated a resource order for a search helicopter, made recommendations to the IC regarding search team tactics, search area delineation, clue awareness, volunteer management, expansion of the mission’s ICS structure and media relations. In addition to the helicopter, the IC utilized ground searchers on foot, on horseback, and in 4WD vehicles and ATVs. Just before noon, one of the ATV teams reported that they had found the woman alive about two miles upstream of St. Joe in the Mill Creek drainage. They reported that she was exhausted, dehydrated, hypothermic, and had sustained multiple cuts, bruises and insect bites, but was otherwise in fair condition. A deputy picked her up via 4WD vehicle and transported her to a waiting ambulance from North Arkansas Regional Medical Center, which took her to a nearby hospital. She remained there for several days recovering from her six-day/five-night ordeal. She told investigators that she “just got lost” and that she ate hazel nuts and drank creek water for the duration of her unscheduled bivouac. Over 100 people from ten agencies and numerous civilian volunteers responded to this incident, and both the incident commander and the Searcy County Sheriff reported that the cooperation from the NPS liaisons was indispensable to the success of the mission. The park intends to host “Introduction to Search Operations and Search Management” classes in the near future and invite local sheriff’s office employees to attend.