It was an old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek, with some new toys.
The seekers had the latest technology and years of collective experience in searching and finding. The hider had acres of forest in which to vanish.
The searchers included members of Umatilla County and Walla Walla County search and rescue units. They gathered early Saturday at a staging area near Tollgate for a joint training exercise.
Incident commander Bob English, of Umatilla County SAR, described the scenario. The searchers stood and sat in a semi-circle, hydrating as they listened.
“A young man named Andrei is lost,” English said. “He’s 12, about five feet tall. He’s from Houston, Texas. Brown eyes, brown hair and 110 pounds. Wearing running shoes, green T-shirt, red ball cap, blue windbreaker. He has a day pack, a bottle of water and a cloth bag. He was looking for huckleberries.”
The boy had disappeared about 8 the night before.
About a mile away, the “victim” lay on a steep forested slope at the base of a big white fir tree. Andrei Neacsu had ostensibly gotten separated from his family while picking wild berries. As the sky darkened, he lost his balance and suffered a horrendous fall. He bled internally and started going into shock.
The clock was ticking.
The searchers didn’t know most of these details yet. All they had was a missing person report, the boy’s last known location and a plan.
English pointed to a whiteboard hung on the door of the motorhome that doubled as a command center. On the board were coordinates of where Andrei had last been seen and information about weather, terrain, radio channels and assignments. The group had been divvied into three teams.
Umatilla County Emergency Manager Tom Roberts and Bill Morris would monitor the roads and fly a drone. Two teams would search separate areas near the boy’s last known location.
The four members of Team 2 piled into a Polaris side-by-side and headed down a two-track dirt road. They disembarked after three quarters of a mile and got a look at their search area, a steep 300-yard-wide rectangle of land that descended to Woodward Creek.
The four — Craig Russell, Kendra Russell, Tom Beyer and Carl Sorrels — huddled together looking at the map and strategizing. The Russells, both Pendleton attorneys and members of the Umatilla County unit, are relative newcomers to SAR. Beyers, a Walla Walla County sheriff’s deputy, and Sorrels, a Walla Walla electrician, are veterans.
The group devised a plan. They would walk four abreast sidehill, close enough to see the person on either side, at a compass bearing that would take them southeast. They would trek 300 meters, pivot and walk back the same distance on the next section of hill.
The searchers kept track of steps to determine distance. Beyer, for example, walks 65 paces for every 100 meters. They hiked carefully though huckleberry bushes, cone flower, bracken ferns and logging slash. Calls of “Andrei” rang out with periods of silence following. A drone buzzed intermittently overhead.
Sorrels, partway through the first pass, spotted a flash of blue on the forest floor. He walked to the object, carefully avoiding footprints in the soft dirt nearby and picked up a blue windbreaker. He eyeballed it and called Craig Russel, the team leader for the day. Russell radioed command.
Sorrels looked around and tried to mind-meld with Andrei.
“In my mind, I’m a huckleberry picker,” he said. “I’m getting hot and I drop my windbreaker.”
Sorrels planted a long stick in the earth to mark the spot and walked to the road where his squad had regrouped to await direction from command in light of the new development. On the road, Beyer bent down, picked up a small piece of a wrapper and examined it.
“Hey, Craig,” he said. “There’s a piece of a trail mix wrapper here. It looks pretty new.”
The four members of Team 1 walked by on the road, leapfrogging to a different area after the windbreaker discovery. Down the road, they found the rest of the wrapper, confirmed it was the Costco brand of trail mix that his mom said Andrei had been carrying.
From his spot at the base of the white fir tree, Andrei blew his whistle and a searcher on Team 1 heard him. They made their way to Andrei. Unlike the game of hide-and-seek, finding is only half the battle.
“Finding someone is a rush,” said Dan Androes, of the Walla Walla unit. “But at the same time, there’s the question of what next? You’re still miles into the wilderness and need to get out.”
Beyer, the medical person of the day, crouched down to examine Andrei, who gave his best impersonation of a gravely injured person. Andrei is the grandson of Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office deputy and SAR member Dwight Johnson, who organized the training scenario. Andrei flickered in and out of hypothetical consciousness. His pulse was thready. Everything pointed to an internal bleed and a person going into shock.
Within half an hour, the boy was strapped onto a litter for the short walk to the logging road. Six searchers became litter bearers, picking their way carefully up the hill, taking care not to bounce their patient. On the road, “the wheel” awaited. The special piece of equipment connects to the Stokes litter and can be wheeled along rough terrain.
Umatilla County’s wheel came to the unit as a donation from Tammy Richter, the wife of a fisherman whose boat was found circling McKay Reservoir with no one aboard in 2013. Searchers from five counties converged on the reservoir to look for Matt Richter and eventually located his submerged body.
The local search and rescue squad didn’t forget Richter either, arriving en masse at his funeral and sitting in the second row, which the family had reserved for them. Richter won’t forget their expertise and grace.
“I am so thankful for the way they treated me,” she said. “They handled everything with respect and with dignity.”
As Saturday’s scenario came to an end four hours after it began, the players appeared tired and sweaty, but happy. The searchers can’t be in this for the glory or the money, because there isn’t much of either. Reasons vary for joining. Travis Lundquist, who manages the Pendleton KOA campground, joined an Idaho SAR unit at age 14 along with his dad. Twenty-five years later, Lundquist is still doing search and rescue.
He loves the moment a lost, stranded and/or injured person realizes help has arrived. Many begin to cry. Those moments are one reason he stays year after year.
“It’s their reaction. It’s the relief they have on their faces,” Lundquist said. “It’s very emotional for them.”
Searchers get no pay, but eschew the title of volunteer.
“We’re unpaid professionals,” Beyer said.
He elaborated on the distinction. SAR members have skills, he said. They interview, complete initial training and train an additional 40-60 hours each year.
“It’s a pretty big commitment,” he said.
Both units are under the auspices of the area’s county sheriff’s departments.
Unlike the traditional game of hide-and-seek, this version is often life or death. While the rescuers on Saturday bantered in lighthearted good humor throughout the day, the reason for the exercise was deadly serious.
Tom Roberts quoted the SAR mantra: “This we do so others may live.”
Despite the pride, they are anything but cliquish. Both units welcome new members. For more information about Umatilla County or Walla Walla County SAR units, go to co.umatilla.or.us or wwcssar.org.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.