Tag Archives: BUSAR

Good Luck Chuck and Mt. LeConte SAR feedback…

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Photo credit: rangerwb

A couple weeks ago, Team BUSAR responded to assist NPS Rescue team in the evacuation of a stroke patient from Mt. LeConte. Fortunately, the rescue went smooth and Chuck is doing great! The life stories that we are intertwined with don’t always end well, so we love to hear happy endings.

We received the following notification from his wife and link to a post written by one of his party. With their permission, I am re-posting it here.

Jeanna,

Hope you are well. My husband, Chuck Cocke, was rescued by NPS and BUSAR on the afternoon and evening of November 9th. Chuck had gone hiking with a group of friends from Christ Church in Charlotte. They hiked to the top of Mount Le Conte on Thursday, November 8th (a strenuous journey for anyone)  and then the group stayed overnight at the lodging on the summit. Friday morning during breakfast people in the group noticed that Chuck didn’t seem like himself. Upon leaving the cabin where they were having breakfast, Chuck stumbled and fell; those around him noticed he seemed incoherent. Luckily,  Stuart Garner was on the trip, he is an excellent pulmonary doctor. He had Chuck lay down on one of the beds and Stuart administered first aid and recognized the signs of a TIA, Transient ischemic attack, or commonly known as a mini-stroke.

Chuck eventually became stabilized but the question then was how to get Chuck down the mountain. That is where NPS and BUSAR came in. The team arrived about 3 p.m. that day and carried Chuck down the mountain on a gurney. That particular day it was foggy and raining and for three of the four hours during the decent, the team was in the pitch dark.

When they finally arrived at the base of the mountain, I was so grateful that I wanted to cry. It was such a heroic act on the part of people who didn’t know my husband. Chuck and I are so thankful for the effort of NPS and BUSAR. I am sending you the E devotion written by Matt Holcombe, our priest who was on the trip and also played a key role in the rescue. I’ve also cc:ed Matt in case you want to reach out to him. Matt’s words are very moving; many people have responded with love and gratitude for the work of your first responders.

Thank them for me for saving my husband’s life. We are both very grateful.

Best,

Nanelle Napp, Chuck Cocke’s wife  

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

The answer caught me off-guard: “We can fly him off the mountain in a helicopter, take him down on horseback, or carry him down on a stretcher.” This is when I knew we were in trouble.

Last week a group of men from Christ Church and friends hiked to the top of Mount LeConte. After a grueling eight-mile hike we all finally reached the summit at 6,593 feet. Welcoming us, and hikers from across the world, was Mount LeConte Lodge, the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States. With no electricity or running water and the closest road six miles away, the hand-hewn log cabins are an appropriate escape from the high-tech world a mile below. After a hearty dinner, evening prayers, and a time of reflection on our hike’s theme — ‘Whose life are you living?’ — we retired to our cabins for a well-earned night of sleep.

The next morning we prepared for the six-mile hike down the other side of the mountain. We packed up our backpacks and shared a quick breakfast. This being our 11th annual hike, most of the 23 men knew what to expect. But everything was about to change. After breakfast I noticed someone helping Chuck Cocke walk to his cabin. I offered to help and immediately noticed the left side of Chuck’s body wasn’t moving. He wasn’t speaking clearly. His eyes were glazed over. He couldn’t hold his head up. We rushed him to a nearby cabin and laid him on one of the beds. Stuart Garner, the hike organizer and a gifted pulmonologist, appeared out of nowhere. Stuart checked for a wrist pulse and couldn’t find one. Stuart found a carotid artery pulse and the lodge staff was summoned for help. It appeared Chuck was having a stroke and we knew every minute was vital.

The next hour was a blur. After conferring with the National Park Service (NPS) the lodge staff gave us the options: “We can fly him off the mountain in a helicopter, take him down on horseback, or carry him down on a stretcher.” Unfortunately, due to weather conditions (50-foot visibility, rain and winds gusting to 20 knots), the helicopter option was eliminated. Due to Chuck’s condition, horseback was also not possible. He needed to be carried down the mountain. We felt defeated and I felt hopeless. I got in touch with Chuck’s wife and assured her we were doing everything we could. However, at that moment I wasn’t sure if Chuck was going to make it off the mountain alive.

As we waited for members of the NPS search and rescue team to arrive, every minute seemed like an hour. The first two members of the rescue team (a paramedic and EMT) arrived around noon. They assessed Chuck’s condition and ensured he was stable. Several more hours passed before 13 additional members of the NPS Rescue team and BUSAR (www.teambusar.org) arrived to carry Chuck off the mountain.
Nearly seven hours after the ordeal started, Chuck was strapped into the one-wheeled rescue stretcher (a “litter”) and we started down the mountain. The litter needed six people at all times to ensure Chuck’s safety. The six-mile journey down the mountain took five hours, three of which were in darkness of night, all in the rain. We descended nearly 4,000 feet across rivers, boulders, and trails that at times were no wider than a foot.
Early in the journey I offered a prayer for Chuck and the entire rescue team. And then it happened: I saw God. I saw God in the face of the rescuers. I saw God in Stuart’s face. I saw God in Chuck’s face. I saw God in the charred forest. I saw God in the headlamps that lit our path. I saw God in the stories that were shared coming down the mountain. I saw God in a group of people putting their life at risk for someone they had never met.

When I imagined a mountain-top experience with God, this isn’t what I had in mind. Yet, it is precisely the way of love that Jesus speaks about in the gospels. As it says in this Thanksgiving Blessing, “Count your blessings instead of your crosses; count your gains instead of your losses. Count your smiles instead of your tears; count your courage instead of your fears. Count your health instead of your wealth; and count on God instead of yourself.”

Shortly after 8:00 PM we reached the bottom of the trail, where Chuck’s wife and an ambulance were waiting. They rushed Chuck to the hospital for a myriad of tests. All the tests came back negative and he was released the following day. The doctors don’t know what happened or how or why. Some may say it is a mystery, but I’d prefer to call it a blessing. A blessing that Chuck’s health was restored, a blessing for the strangers who helped Chuck, or perhaps the biggest blessing of the whole experience … Chuck doesn’t remember anything from the entire day.

This Thanksgiving I pray that you will give thanks to God for all the blessings in your life, especially the ones you can’t explain.

Please join us tonight for Thanksgiving Eve Holy Eucharist at 7:30 PM in the Church.

  The Reverend Matt Holcombe
Associate Rector
704-714-6964 
   holcombem@christchurchcharlotte.org
Click here to learn more about Team BUSAR

Team BUSAR at Three Rivers Market…

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote a this post about a great place called Three Rivers Market. Before we moved deeper into the mountains of North Carolina, we were members there and enjoyed their locally farmed produce and bulk foods. Every couple months, I still buy my 50 pound bag of organic rolled oats there.

For the month of June, our team is honored to be the recipient of the Nourishing Change Grant. Basically, anytime you or another customer makes a purchase, you can round up your change and/or donate extra to the team. This money has already been earmarked to buy our team swiftwater rescue gear for operations in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

On Saturday, June 9th at 1:30 pm, our team will also be on site doing Preventative – Search & Rescue demos targeting kids, but there will be good stuff for adults too.

So come visit us, meet some team members, and pet Kato the Magnificent..

By rounding up your change, or donating, you are become part of the rescue!

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BUSAR Fundraiser – Saturday 3/10…

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Last August, Team BUSAR spent over 632 hours while searching for missing teen, Austin Bohanan. Austin walked out under his own power, but his family graciously wants to recognize our efforts for our hard work in some the toughest terrain in the park.

This Saturday, the Bohanon’s will be hosting a fundraiser at Maple Grove Missionary Church in Maryville, between 3 and 7 pm. There will be a chili to eat ($5) and a silent auction. The Team will also be doing demos to help increase backcountry safety and educate your kids before your summer adventures. We will teach your kids what to do when lost, first aid demos, drone demo, ropework, and Kato the search dog is going to show up.

The event is open to everyone, so swing on by, meet some of the team members, bid on some items, and let your kids have some fun while learning lifesaving skills. Donations go directly to the team to help fund training and gear purchases.

Thanks for your support and we will see you there

Location: Maple Grove Missionary Church 3201 Carpenter’s Grade Rd. Maryville, TN 37803
Date: Saturday, March 10
Time: 3pm – 7pm
Demo times: 4-5pm & 6-7pm

Search info:
http://www.wbir.com/article/news/local/teen-missing-more-than-a-week-in-the-smokies-walks-out-of-backcountry/51-464339030

Event info: https://www.facebook.com/events/199089874003269/

Vote for our Search & Rescue team and save lives…

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Update: I was told by WBIR you can vote once per day now. Please follow the link to vote for our team’s story to be aired during Superbowl Sunday. The exposure will hep our team secure funding for gear and training. Your vote will help save lives.
 
On Sunday night, we got a callout for a 67 y.o. male missing in Maddron area. It was during the shutdown and the park had limited personnel, but Team BUSAR was ready to hit the woods wit the Rangers the next morning. Thankfully the man made it out and back to his worried wife around midnight.

You can now vote once per day for BUSAR and save lives…

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The story of BUSAR is in the top five finalists for WBIR Superstories. Follow this link to see our story and vote. BUSAR Superstory

Our story will be aired on Superbowl Sunday if we win, so head on over and cast your vote. More exposure for the team will hep us secure more funding, allowing us to purchase lifesaving gear and training.

While my name is in the spotlight, this team wouldn’t have formed without my dedicated and hard working team members, both past and present, the support from our families, and the opportunity from the park. From carryouts, to recoveries, to plane crashes, to missing hikers, BUSAR has been behind the scenes of search and rescue in the Smokies for the last two and half years.

To learn more about the team, go here: teambusar.org

And to read more about it’s formation, go here: Team BUSAR

TeamBUSAR.org…

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Three years ago I was at a crux. I had resigned from my backcountry law enforcement ranger position, found out we were having a baby, and started planning our move to North Carolina. I remember reading a text from my MMA coach that he sent out to the team about training and priorities. I was in Florida on vacation, and he was right. I realized that I could no longer dedicate the time and energy to that sport, with new priorities entering my life. I left the gym, leaving part of me behind.

The same was true of my LE Ranger position. While I will never regret my decision to leave, there was a part of my soul that missed the most rewarding facet of that job…

Search and rescue.

I have been extremely fortunate to have a career filled with adventure, but there has only been one time in all those years that emotion has swept over me so strongly, I had to walk away.

Ten years ago, I was on a search for two off-trail hikers on the Spruce Flats Falls manway. I was just getting into the law enforcement division, but got teamed up with “Rambo” Ricky Varner who knew the area like the back of his hand. We located the couple, who were forced to spend the night out, and walked them out to Tremont.

There, patiently waiting, was their family, and what ensued was one of the most tender reunions I have witnessed. They don’t always end that way, but reuniting a family with their missing loved one will move the most calloused soul.

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Photo credit: http://www.thegreatsmokies.net/spruce-flats-falls/

And so two years ago, fueled by a desire to be pushed by a group of hard-core guys, a penchant for the misery of off-trail rescues, and the aspiration to help others, I started recruiting a band of outdoor misfits to form an elite search and rescue team. Our mission would be simple. Prepare for the toughest missions the Smokies can offer..

  • Off-trail rescues
  • Extended carryouts
  • Winter rescues
  • Missing aircraft
  • Technical and swiftwater rescue

With the promise of bad weather, long hours, no pay, and dangerous work, they started to trickle in one by one. First an adventurer racer, then a paddler and climber, then a helicopter pilot, a doctor, a flight medic, a Special Forces veteran, a neuroscientist, another wildlife ranger, and the list went on.

Original flyer:

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As diverse as the crew was, they all had in common the desire to help others in need and the ability to push themselves physically and mentally to build a professional team.

Every week for two years, in every weather condition, we have met at a local park to workout together, carrying our SAR packs and kettlebells, pushing the levels of fitness higher and suffering through grueling fitness standards. Every month, the team has assembled for some form of training, be it technical, swiftwater, tracking, land navigation, wilderness medical, rescue swimming, working with K-9 teams, or just a tough off-trail scramble.

Leaving the comfort of our homes and families to respond to missions, we have carried out patients on the icy Appalachian trail. Rigged up ropes to haul the injured hikers up to safety. Searched for a downed plane during hypothermia inducing weather. Assisted with joint technical rescue training. Responded to many calls only to get cancelled en route when the victim walked out. Searched the dark trails for a missing hikers. Assisted in the body recoveries of recent fatalities. And taken vacation days and cancelled personal plans to respond when called.

The team did all this, and more, to be an asset to the Search and Rescue operations of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and help those in need. The park is working constantly to overcome staffing and budget challenges. We hope to help them by pre-deploying on high volume weekends and holidays, which will reduce our response time and allow us to assist with the P-SAR (Preventative Search & Rescue) program.

The BUSAR Team is the finest group of professionals I have ever worked with. They are my friends, my mentors, my teammates, and they have helped fill that tribal void in my life. I am proud of all they have accomplished and all that they will going forward.

So today I am announcing our team website, Team BUSAR, and the exciting news that we got our non-profit status. For the last two years, except for three donors, we have paid for everything out of our own pocket. Our gear, our training, gas, meals, etc. We have done all that because we desire to help.

Now we are asking for your help.

With over 11 million visitors to the Smokies, there is a good chance that you or someone you care about may need help out there at sometime, so please consider helping us by the following:

  1.  Jump onto our site and read the bios of this dedicated group of professionals
  2. Push this message, and our website, teambusar.org out on social media, hiking forums, email groups, and word of mouth. The more the better, as just that action may find us the help we need.
  3. Like us on Facebook, TeamBUSAR Facebook, and invite all your friends to do the same
  4. BUSAR is a 501(c)3 non-profit, so please consider donating if you are able –  Donate to BUSAR
  5. If you know someone who is looking for a charitable tax deduction, please send them our way.  I am more than happy to chat by phone or meet up to explain our vision. Our team not only has a worthwhile mission, but with half of the team being veterans, it makes a difference in their lives as well.
  6. If you are aware of any grants or foundations that are inline with our mission, please email us at  – busarfoundation@gmail.com

 

To date, the BUSAR project has been one of the most fulfilling chapters in my life. This team would have never started without the hard work and dedication of those on the team and their support of their families. To all those involved, current and former, I give thanks.

Thanks to Chief Ranger Steve Kloster, who has been advising me since it’s formation, along with Jared St. Clair, TN District Ranger, who took over the SAR Coordinator role. Thanks also goes out to all the members of the Smokies Tech Rescue team, Kevin Moses and the cadre of B-TRTE for tech training, Chuck Hester of BLRI, and Brian Osgood and the BCRS crew for loaning us equipment for swiftwater training.

What was birthed two years ago, is now starting to stand on its own two feet. The feet wear muddy boots, the bodies are now hardened by countless workouts and training missions, and the spirit stands by waiting for the call and ready to help. The path ahead of us is clear, we are prepared, and ready for the journey. We invite all of you to join us in this mission to help others, by helping us…

BUSAR!!

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BUSAR Update – February & March

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Prepare for takeoff…

Training – 

Cobrathon – We created a land navigation course over at the BigPig Outdoor’s training site. Each leg of the course has a skill associated with search & rescue, medical, survival, tracking, or fitness once you make it to your objective, like the “5 minute fire” or “5 minute shelter” challenges.

Survival 101 – BUSAR’s own, Dusken Sledge, spent his time in the creek and completed the Survival 101 course.

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Smokies Tech Team – Focused on patient packaging and prepping for interagency training later in the month

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Interagency Training – BUSAR joined the National Park Service, TN Army National Guard, and TN State Parks for a three day training event at Pickett State Park and Obed WSR. We worked on high angle rescue, tech skills, and swiftwater rescue.

Responses – 

  • Baxter Creek Trail knee injury – self rescued
  • Silers Bald carryout 51 y.o. male – stood down after helicopter hoist

Team Workouts – Borkowski returned from New Mexico, so we welcomed him back with a 60 pound sandbag carry for the night in addition to his kettlebell and pack.

Cobra Lair Demo Workout – Several guys came up to help demo some walls for our future build. Armed with only sledgehammers, wheelbarrows, and testosterone, we had a great workout.

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BUSAR Update – December & January..

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Training – We trained at Lookrock in both December and January. December focused on hypothermia treatment, SKED packaging, and high angle recovery.

January focused on multiple reps of steep angle, with sessions after dark as well.

Morgan and Sharbel also completed BigPig Outdoor’s Survival 101 course in January.

And the Jernigator did a little run up Groundhog Ridge manway..

Responses – 

  • Grieco, Ransom, Sharbel, Campbell, Sledge, Jernigan, Geist, Wadley, and Lewis responded to the crash of N1839X. Plane crash in the Smokies
  • Grieco responded to missing AT hiker at Peck’s Corner

Team Workouts – 2017 marks the end of 35 pound kettlebells as we up it to 45 pounders. Thank you for the loyal service and punishment you have brought to the team…

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Recruitment – 

  • Jeff Wadley – Former Lt Colonel in Civil Air Patrol and SAR theory junkie. Literally wrote the book on plane crashes in the Smokies – Mayday, Mayday
  • Ben Harrell – Former Civil Air Patrol ground team leader and computer wizard

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BUSAR November Update – Birthday Bucket List Trip..

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What do you get the team superhero for his 74th birthday? A trip on their bucket list of course.. Happy Birthday to my good friend and team member Doc Miller! His AAR follows:

AAR: BUSAR Old-Manventure: Porters Creek Manway-Lester Prong-Tourist Bunion-Dry Sluice Manway

November 12, 2016

One goal of BUSAR training has been for members to become familiar with the unmaintained manways in the GSMNP along which off trail hikers may easily lose their way. The Porters Creek area, in particular, attracts hard-core bushwhackers and has been the source of recent high profile search efforts (Morgan Briggs missed the manway and wound up on Porters Mountain, 2009–Jenny Bennett was found in Lester Prong off the manway, 2015). In the 80’s manways from the Greenbrier area were fairly open up to the Appalachian Trail. It is still possible to reach Charlie’s Bunion, near the Appalachian Trail, from the Greenbrier section of the Park beginning at the Porters Creek Trailhead at 1900 feet, following the trail to Backcountry Campsite 31, then continuing via old manways up Porters Creek and Lester Prong to reach the steep upper ridges of the Bunion. Last December the Goat led the BoBerry Manventure (BUSAR – Real Bunion) up Porters Creek Manway and the first tributary of Lester Prong to the real Charlie’s Bunion via the Pyramid, then descended via the Dry Sluice Manway.

This year he planned to lead the team up a generally parallel route following the second tributary of Lester Prong up to the “Tourist Bunion” located on the above map just above the “R” in “TRAIL” at 5536 ft. elevation.

Three promontories are variously referred to as Charlie’s Bunion, thus resulting in confusion at times.

Jenny Bennett clarified this in one of her several blogs about the area:

(Real Bunion)

The Charlie’s Bunion designated on the USGS topographic map is also known as Rocky Craig. BUSAR

scaled that via Pyramid Rock in 2015. The next ridge to the west culminates in Middle Craig. The next promontory, further west, is variously called the Tourist Bunion or Bunion Craig. That was the objective of our training on this day.

The plan was to approach via the vanishing Porters Creek Manway and Lester Prong, then scale the ridge

and top out on the Tourist Bunion (Bunion Craig). We would complete the loop by descending steeply via Dry Sluice Manway to Porters Creek Manway above Campsite 31. As the date approached, Andrew announced “Alex has home improvement obligations, so I am polling the group to see who still wants to climb the Tourist Bunion this Saturday? There is a LOT of exposure, potential of death, and once you commit, you can’t down climb”. Another option was vertical training at Look Rock, but when Dusken instantly replied “I opt for the one involving death” it was game on. Sharbel assumed the role of team leader. Andrew, Common Man, Dusken, Johnny and I rounded out the team.

Andrew described the route as “trail to manway to scramble to trail to manway to trail”. Many thanks to Goat, Sharbs and Stronger than the River who had run much of it during their 6.5 hour scouting trip the previous week. Sharbel planned the day as follows: “let’s all meet at the Porters Creek trailhead at 0730 on Saturday so we can go over our plan of attack and hit the trail by 0800. Pack light as there are some tight spots to get through. The creek should be flowing decently so we will be ok on a water source for the majority of the hike. I won’t tell anyone they cannot do this hike but if anyone has doubts about themselves I would say to sit it out. Once we leave the creek we are going straight up and through some pretty thick veg. Once we get to the scramble there are some exposed areas where death is a possibility and going back isn’t an option. I think the trip will take 8-9 hours. Maybe quicker if we want. See y’all at the trail.”

Ten days before my 74th birthday I was having doubts about whether my participation would prevent the elite team of exceptional athletes from completing the mission before darkness fell. I had been longing to make the trip, and was confident that I could do it, but not if it would diminish the enjoyment and comfort level of the team who might consider me a liability. I thought secretly of doing what I considered to be honorable and let the team carry on without me when the going got tough. I would enjoy the glory of the day in quiet contemplation along beautiful Porters Creek, pondering the off trail adventures of Jenny Bennett and my late friend Charlie Klabunde in one of their favorite places, until the team returned.

Phase one unfolded as planned. Everyone reached the rally point at precisely the same time. It was a beautiful clear Fall day, warm for November, with light winds predicted on the ridge tops. When the team reached the end of the trail at Campsite 31, I was about 10 minutes behind. Knowing the real manventure was just beginning, I tactfully pointed out the fact that the day promised only 10 hours and 20 minutes of daylight, we had left the trailhead an hour after sunrise, and it might take all of the remaining light and more to complete the loop at my speed. I suggested that I linger in the area while the team proceeded at their usual high-speed pace. At that point, a great day became a fantastic day.

King Cobra declared that he wasn’t going on if I didn’t. The team unanimously rejected my proposal and unselfishly insisted that we would accomplish the goal together. What followed was one of the greatest displays of teamwork and teambuilding that I have experienced.

For most, it was literally a walk in the park, for some it was an opportunity to function outside their comfort zone, for me it was a test of physical ability and endurance and a life-changing experience which I will never forget.

The rhododendron tunnels of the old Porters Creek Manway were less tight than I had anticipated, thanks to the pruning efforts of some whom Jenny Bennett fondly referred to as “certain eccentric humans that I know”.

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The drought made the trip up Porters Creek and Lester Prong dry and easy.

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The way was marked by occasional cairns, some of which are very impressive.

It is important to correctly identify the confluence of Porters Creek and Lester Prong* and then to count the tributaries joining Lester Prong. The finger ridge up to the Tourist Bunion lies between the second and third tributaries of Lester Prong. The team verified this with the GPS. Even such skilled backcountry navigators as Jenny Bennett, who used only map, compass, altimeter and terrain association (not GPS) have misidentified the tributaries (Tourist Bunion).

One must know which tributary you are ascending in order to climb out of it in the correct direction.

*The cremains of Charlie Klabunde and Jenny Bennett were spread at the confluence of Porters Creek and Lester Prong. Jenny’s Last HikeSharbel led us up the third tributary, following the mostly dry but nonetheless beautiful remote streambed, to approximately 4400 ft. elevation.

At that point, travel became more difficult as we climbed through dense vegetation, belly crawling at times, to scale the ridge to our East. It was often necessary to be within 10 feet of the one climbing above you to maintain visual contact. Once we were on the ridge, the real adventure began–as did the teamwork that I mentioned.

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The final 1000 feet of elevation rose progressively more steeply as the beauty and exposure increased in inverse proportion to the width of the knife edge ridge.

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Jenny Bennett’s words echoed in my mind – “There’s lots of handholds and footholds—it just happens there’s a lot of air around it, too. So it becomes an exercise in positive thinking. In other words, focus on what’s there instead of what’s not there.”

Andrew schooled me in proper handholds and techniques on the flaky Anakeesta shale formation where Sand Myrtle has a tenuous, untrustworthy toehold. Common Man was right behind me to check my footholds and boost me when my old joints prevented me from reaching where I wanted, and needed, to be. In the absence of rope, body belays for the stiff and rusty “Tin Man” were improvised using a page from Jason’s Swiftwater Rescue playbook when topography exceeded the extent of my flexibility. Sharbel, Dusken and Johnny were also part of the human chain.

Considering the consequences of a slip and fall into the adjacent nearly vertical scree-filled ravine, the team literally put their lives on the line for the benefit of the weakest link, just as they would in a rescue situation. They have the skill and experience to assess and manage the risk and to do it safely. This is why we train as we do. As a proud member of this team I never had any concerns or doubts about completing the mission safely.

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Jenny J cheered us up the final pitches from her vantage point on the Appalachian Trail. She would have been part of the crew but for a knee injury.

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Andrew sighted a Peregrine Falcon overhead, a great omen, as we enjoyed a brief lunch and photo op on the “Tourist Bunion” while visiting with “tourists” who had come by way of the Appalachian Trail.

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Like many of them, I had enjoyed the breathtaking view from this spot many times before, and in many seasons, only dreaming of reaching the Bunion the hard way. I never imagined I would have the opportunity, and certainly not at age 74. I am deeply indebted to this team who has accepted, supported, encouraged and trusted me to participate.

We were burning daylight and it was time to go down – fast! Of course that was part of the plan and our route lay 15 minutes to the East along the Appalachian Trail. Sharbel led us right to the top of the obscure Dry Sluice Manway and we began our descent to Porters Creek.

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Common Man stayed with me and Johnny kept us in sight while maintaining visual contact with the leaders. The steep descent of the open Dry Sluice gave way to intimate rhododendron tunnels in the upper reaches of Porters Creek Manway which has been flagged with yellow tape. We rallied at Campsite 31 and then hit the trail together for the last leg. Common Man hung with me while Johnny continued to bridge the gap between us and the leaders. It was indeed after dark when we reached the trailhead by the light of a brilliant Super Moon. Cheerful, unselfish team members – who held team above self – waited in the cold darkness to debrief our “fantastic” adventure which was a high point in my life.

Thank you brothers…..BUSAR!

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To make my long story short, it was my first day back with the park, when I got assigned to the fire. After coming of a lookout detail on Ski Mountain, I was tasked with evacuating the headquarters building with another wildlife ranger, Ryan Williamson. We cleared the building out and then were tasked to remove trees of the Gatlinburg Bypass for the evacuation.

Ryan and I started cutting trees when the embers started falling, causing spot fires to erupt on both sides of the road. We called in that it was no longer a safe route and watched the convoy roll out Two Mile. Things were getting pretty crazy at this time, with winds driving a canopy fire up the ridges.

There was a lot going on the radio, but somewhere in there we got word to head to the Spur, the section of road connecting Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge, to clear downed trees. The Spur was one of the main evacuation routes for thousands of residents. As soon as we cleared the city limits, we started running into downed trees and cut them out as we headed towards Pigeon Forge.

Word came over the radio that trees were blocking the road at Gnatty Branch and we hit stand still traffic shortly after. I jumped out and started hoofing it through the traffic, thinking Ryan would catch up as traffic eased forward. The traffic wasn’t moving, so Ryan ditched the truck and set out on foot, catching up to me later on. It is hard to estimate, but we both agreed that we probably walked through 1.5 miles of traffic to get to Gnatty Branch.

At one point a father and son team came running up, talking to me briefly, then started running ahead. Predictably, this caused some drivers to panic and exit their vehicles thinking there was a need to run. Fearing they would abandon their vehicles compunding the problem, I assured them we would get the traffic rolling.

Arriving at Gnatty Branch, the rangers had already diverted traffic to travel in the opposite direction on the South bound Spur. Ryan, Rob, and I cut out the tree that was blocking the road. While cutting on that tree an officer from Pigeon Forge rolled up and said there was a burning tree up ahead that was blocking the road, so I jumped in with him to go clear it.

Around this time, my phone started blowing up and I got the following email from my neighbor on the other side of the mountain about a fire 1 mile from the cabin:

emergency!  please call 911…there is a fire across the lake and it has burned out all of our phone lines.  I tried 911, but lins were burning and I’m not sure emergency went out.  Please call!!!

After calling the local fire department, I frantically tried contacting my wife to get her and my son to evacuate to safer grounds. With no luck, I was able to get the dispatcher at Graham County to get one of the volunteer firefighters to contact her. By far, that was the most stressful half hour of the night for me, observing the chaos at hand and knowing that my family would be trapped if the fire spotted close to them.

Once we cleared the North bound lanes, we shifted to the South bound, then back to the North bound, and repeating the loop until 2 am to keep it open for emergency responders. With fire on both sides of the road, houses and condominiums ablaze, and the repetitious explosions of propane tanks venting, it will be a night that both Ryan and I will never forget. Wind gusts were clocked at 85 mph that night, and at one point, I had to brace Ryan to keep the wind from pushing him into the tree he was cutting.

I started wildland firefighting 16 years ago and have seen some pretty crazy fire behavior on western details, but the firestorm surpassed anything I could have imagined in this area. The fact that the fatalities are not in the thousands, is a testament to the rangers, firefighters, and other emergency personnel that were out there that were on the front lines with us that night.

 

Several other BUSAR team members responded through their home units in the days after the firestorm; Doc Miller, Jason Benjamin, & Matt Jernigan. While my response was not through BUSAR, I give credit to the team for keeping me in “fighting” shape, both physically and mentally.

BUSAR’s Jason Benjamin also wrote a great Facebook post about his observations while leading an inter-agency structural crew in the days following the fire:

What the Gatlinburg fire reminded me about humanity:

I’ve avoided social media for the past several months because I was tired of being told how divided our country was. Every time I logged on to Facebook my news feed was flooded with terrible, hateful posts. People I had always known to be thoughtful and considerate were spewing venom at anyone that disagreed with them. Lines were drawn and friends became enemies as they called each other names like “deplorable”, “elitist”, “misogynist”, “hack” and “bigot”. As a military veteran and career firefighter, I’ve spent nearly 30 of my 47 years helping people. I could no longer put up with being inundated by the constant fury and vitriol. I even deleted a few people from my social media because of the hate they displayed.

I spent two days in Gatlinburg last week fighting fire and searching for victims on my days off from the fire department I work for. The staging area was in the same building as the shelter for those that had to leave their home. The moment I arrived on the first day, I saw dozens of the local residents that were staying in the shelter. Before I could get inside to check myself and my teammates in, I was thanked and blessed ten different times by strangers. The pain in their eyes and voices was heartbreaking. I already had faces to put with the stories I’d been hearing and I hadn’t even checked in yet.

Shortly after checking in, I was asked to lead a Battalion made up of firefighters and equipment from all over the Southeast. There were local departments represented, as well as departments from as far away as Cherokee, NC and Manchester, TN. All of us were there for the same reason and we couldn’t wait to get to work. Although our primary mission was searching for victims, we spent the entire morning putting out brush fires and rekindled house fires. It wasn’t until after we took a break for lunch that we finally got the chance to look for victims. At times, the smoke was thick, but we kept working for as long as we could. No one wanted to quit.

I spent the first day back at my fire department thinking about what I had seen in Gatlinburg. I thought about all the people that sincerely thanked us for being there. I thought about the victims we’d found and the ones that were still out there. I thought about the men and women that volunteered to be there because they wanted to help. I thought about the newly-broken families. I thought about the senseless pain and suffering. I thought about the tragedy.

I can’t say when it occurred to me, but at some point I thought about how I hadn’t seen hate. I hadn’t heard anyone mention politics. None of that mattered at that point in time. All that mattered was people were facing the worst nightmare of their lives and other people came from near and far to do anything and everything they could to help. I witnessed strangers helping strangers. I saw immigrants from Latin America and India sharing cups of coffee and tea with native East Tennesseans and no one was talking about building walls. They were talking about rebuilding their homes and businesses. No one seemed to care if the person sitting next to them was here legally. They did, however, make it very clear they were glad they made it out of the fire safely.

I’ve had a few days to process most of what I saw in Gatlinburg. As awful as it was, there is so much to be thankful for. A lot was lost during the fire, but so much more was saved by the brave men and women that stayed to fight and the thousands that showed up later. I’m thankful I had a chance to play a small part in it, but I’m most thankful for what the Gatlinburg fire reminded me about humanity:

Regardless of how much we disagree, we will always come together and fight to survive and protect each other. We are humans and we have not lost our humanity. We are not as divided as I thought. We just temporarily forgot what it means to be humane.

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