Despite a half-dozen helicopter missions with state-of-the-art technology, and the first-ever implementation of a drone in a rescue mission in the county, it turns out all it took was a good old-fashioned railroad to get a missing hiker to safety.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to make it now,’” Melikai Hesse said of spotting a maintenance car with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad after spending three days and two nights lost in the San Juan Mountains.
On Tuesday, Hesse was able to flag down the train car just before 3 p.m. near the Tacoma Power Plant, a stop on the train’s route along the Animas River in a remote part of the canyon with no road access.
Hesse was about a mile and a half – as the crow flies – from where he went missing when he separated from his friends on a hike near Haviland Lake late Sunday afternoon.
The three-day search for Hesse in the difficult mountainous terrain was highly intensive, and by far the most extensive operation this year, said La Plata County Emergency Service Office director Butch Knowlton.
Since Hesse went missing Sunday, the search involved upwards of two dozen search and rescue personnel in the field at any time, as well as the participation of members of the La Plata County Mounted Patrol on horseback.
Six missions between Flight for Life and a New Mexico National Guard Black Hawk helicopter, too, turned up little evidence of the 23-year-old La Plata County resident.
But the search and rescue operation was the first opportunity to fully test recently purchased unmanned aerial vehicles – commonly called drones – that La Plata County acquired to add another tool in emergency operations.
In December, the county purchased two drones and a larger device intended to assist emergency situations that could include flooding, wildfires or locating people lost in the outdoors. “These are really great tools to boost efficiency and safety,” emergency management coordinator Tom McNamara said at that time. “It’s an aerial platform, something we don’t have now.”
And, the implementation of a drone can save the high price of a helicopter flight, which can cost between $1,200 to $2,400 an hour.
With Southwest Colorado’s high altitude come certain challenges with traditional aircraft, namely planes and helicopters, in search and rescue events, Knowlton said, especially when a mission calls for hovering or traveling slow.
A drone can fill that gap.
“A UAV gives us the opportunity to hang in the sky in really tough terrain,” Knowlton said. “Whereas with conventional aircraft, we only get a split second to see into a particular area.”
Knowlton said drones allow emergency personnel to slow down an aerial search, and with real-time video, hone-in in much finer detail areas of heavy vegetation or difficult-to-see ravines and cervices.
“We can really look closely for our subject,” he said.
The county has certain protocols to authorize the use of a drone in emergency situations, internally as well as when working with private landowners in a given search area.
The search for Hesse covered a campground managed by the U.S. National Forest as well as private land. The agency and the landowner were notified and gave consent (though that’s not necessarily required) of the drone’s use, Knowlton said.
Although search and rescue efforts went around the clock, little evidence of Hesse was found, be it on the ground or in the air.
Knowlton said based on initial conversations with Hesse, it’s likely the inexperienced hiker was just on the exterior of the perimeter searches focused in on.
Still, every opportunity to use the drone is useful. “Every time we use it, we discover new capabilities,” Knowlton said. “The biggest learning experience we have is seeing the capabilities it offers us in different terrain and vegetative colors.”