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November 25, 2013 - 1:23am

Rescuers put themselves at risk to save stranded hunter in Iroquois refuge

posted by Howard B. Owens in Alabama, hunting, outdoors, Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.

At 4:38 p.m., Bill Schutt, Alabama fire's assistant chief, is reminded the sun sets in three minutes.

"That's what I'm worried about," he says. "It's not just light. It gets colder."

His chief is out on an island in the midst of frigid water with a hunter who became stranded in the swamps of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge on a day when temperatures dipped into the teens. One firefighter, who was with the chief, is at risk of frostbite after his boots filled with water while trying to reach the hunter.

It's too risky for the firefighters to walk out, even though they've located the hunter and he's in good health.

The hunter called for help at 2:30 in the afternoon. He started hunting at 12:30. He called for help, he said later, having spent an hour in the icy waters of the swamp tracking a deer he'd shot.

"At first the water wasn't too deep," said Colin Phillips, here from Vermont to hunt. "I was hopping from island to island out there and then it started getting deeper and deeper and I'm breaking through the ice. Finally, I reached an island and went about 50 yards and I couldn't go any further. I was exhausted."

His hands were freezing because he didn't have any gloves, but was otherwise appropriately dressed for the conditions. It was so cold that after his gun got wet it jammed with ice. He couldn't even fire a shot to alert rescuers to his location.

He was found with the help of a State Police helicopter and good tracking by Alabama Chief Gary Patnode.

As sunset neared, a hovercraft from Clarence Center returned from its crew's effort to reach the stranded hunter and the two firefighters. 

The sticks and logs popped nearly ever single floatation tube from around the boat. 

One of the crew members said that when they were about halfway to the location, the boat's stern took a nosedive into the water and that's when most of the damage was done.

The crew decided to be safe and make its way back to the shore.

"We realized, it's just a machine," he said. "It can be repaired."

As the sun's light wanes outside the command center, Jim Bouton, a coordinator with the Office of Emergency Management, learns that the weather had cleared enough for the State Police helicopter to return to the scene.

The helicopter isn't really equipped to hoist people from the ground, so the plan is for the chopper to hover right on top of the ice and pull one person at a time into the craft.

Bouton relays the plan to Schutt and looks skeptical.

"We need a plan C," he says.

A little later, scene commanders learn the helicopter from the Erie County Sheriff's Office will attempt the rescue. The two-man crew can deploy a hoist.

"I'm usually the type to remain calm and I was confident enough in our resources and our fire companies that I knew we were eventually going to get out," Patnode said after he returned safely to Casey Road. "We were already working on plans B, C and D."

When the rescue effort first started, Schutt noted, it seemed straightforward enough. Dispatchers were able to provide coordinates of the stranded hunter and he wasn't too difficult to find.

But getting him out safely proved to be harder than expected.

"The amount of water they had to go through, lightly frozen over, was the problem the hunter ran into in the first place," Schutt said. "Our firefighters could not have safely gotten back because they would have had to walk back through the water."

Alabama firefighters have all recently been through wilderness rescue training and Patnode had Thompson carrying a backpack equipped with what rescuers would need in a wilderness situation.

Except for a kit to start a fire.

"If I could have started a fire, I would have," Patnode said.

The idea of a nighttime rescue in the wilderness certainly carried an innate sense of risk.

"Any time you have a helicopter operating in the dark close to trees and people, it's definitely an elevated level of danger," said Andy Merkle, who worked the scene during most of the incident as operations manager.

His job was to keep an track of all the people and resources going in so they could be accounted for coming out.

"We want to make sure we don't come up with any more victims," Merkle said.

The first person rescued was Ryan Thompson, the firefighter with the cold feet. He was fine and was out walking around after a few minutes of rehab in an ambulance.

Thompson expressed nothing but confidence in his chief and his fellow firefighters. He said he never felt like it was a desperate situation.

"I knew it was our job and they would get us out some how," Thompson said.

Phillips was the next one brought back to the command post on Casey Road.

Upon his return, the demeanor of his brother and a friend who had been pacing the road for more than two hours went from fretful to joyous.

"You go from being absolutely terrified to utter rejoicing in the matter of two hours," said friend Matthew Laflair.

Laflair had some familiarity with the swamp area and knew what firefighters were up against.

"I know how tough it is to get back there, so to see the effort is good," Laflair said. "It's impressive to see a helicopter pulling some people out of here."

Patnode was the third person airlifted out of the swamp. He was also impressed by the effort of the Erie County pilot.

"I think he went above and beyond," Patnode said. "Maybe he went out of his comfort zone doing a night rescue like that, but he got the job done."

There were two other members of the Alabama team who got stranded in the woods. They were brought out by members of the Clarence Center Fire Department who were dressed in cold-water rescue suits.

In all, volunteers from fire departments in Genesee, Orleans, Erie and Niagara counties assisted in the rescue of Phillips.

"I owe them my life," Phillps said. "If they didn't come out and get me, I'd be dead tonight. I appreciate every second of it. They're great people."

Patnode, Thompson, Schutt, all said, "this is what we do."

So what can we say about that?

"I think you say 'Thank you,' " Schutt said. "I don't know what more you can say than that.

"These guys are out here, no paycheck," Schutt added. "They've been out here in the cold for hours, but it's something you do for your community. When you're part of a volunteer fire department, somebody calls for help, you go help. It's not something you complain about. None of these guys are going to complain about being out here cold and away from home for hours."

The initial post on this incident by Billie Owens contains a lot of details in chronological order of how the rescue went down. If you haven't read it, read it.

Bill Schutt, communicating with dispatchers early in the incident.

Patnode, center of the picture, after being airlifted from the swamp.

Top photo, Colin Phillips escorted to an ambulance after being rescued.

To purchase prints of photos, click here.

jason reese
jason reese's picture
Last seen: 4 years 10 months ago
Joined: Dec 12 2008 - 11:39am

He is a very lucky hunter

Irene Will
Irene Will's picture
Last seen: 7 months 3 weeks ago
Joined: Feb 2 2009 - 2:01pm

I am SO PROUD of MY Alabama VOLUNTEER Fire Department. Great job, you guys!!!!

Sam Tambe Jr.
Sam Tambe Jr.'s picture
Last seen: 4 months 2 weeks ago
Joined: May 14 2010 - 4:32pm

We our very blessed to have people like Bill Schutt and volunteer Firefighters/Rescue Crews in our community who so selflessly give their time and expertise to saving others.


kevin kretschmer
kevin kretschmer's picture
Last seen: 6 years 3 months ago
Joined: Jan 26 2010 - 9:32pm

I would encourage the local Fire Depts. to keep the Erie Co. Sheriff's Aviation Unit as their "Plan B" for most rescue scenarios that may require air rescue. Based on years of first-hand experience in the Zoar Valley Canyon, I doubt you'll find a better helicopter pilot than Kevin Caffery. I've seen him do things with "Air 1" that defy belief.

Ed Hartgrove
Ed Hartgrove's picture
Last seen: 3 years 9 months ago
Joined: Dec 20 2012 - 11:54am

This rescue, as reported by Billie, is quite an eye-opener into some of what goes into an event like this. Double-thumbs-up to all involved.

I would hope, and expect, that this morning (Monday) the Fire Chief would be on his way to Barrett's Marine to buy a magnesium stick and a roll of wax paper (for STARTING fires in the wild). You can get them for less than $25, and they can be a lifesaver.

Oh, yeah, the chief can call neighboring fire companies and tell them about a much-needed addition to their survival packs. Shared knowledge could be life-saving knowledge.

BTW, I'm pretty sure Barrett's carry those magnesium sticks, but if they don't, they could order them. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, you might try the new Genesee County tourist attraction, but I'd try Barrett's first!

Irene Will
Irene Will's picture
Last seen: 7 months 3 weeks ago
Joined: Feb 2 2009 - 2:01pm

Sure would be nice if that hunter made some kind of DONATION the VOLUNTEER Fire Department !!!!!!

C. M. Barons
C. M. Barons's picture
Last seen: 1 month 2 weeks ago
Joined: Jul 29 2008 - 11:56pm

As a former trapper, I have an 'appreciation' of the unforeseen hazards that marshes can present- especially in winter conditions.

The perseverance of the volunteers is commendable. They deserve praise beyond the reward of getting all involved out with life and limb.

When a Scout, some 50 years ago, under the direction of my Dad we made survival fire-starters. I still find them in old tackle boxes and pockets of hunting jackets.

Place two safety matches, side-by-side, heads in opposite direction so they don't touch, on a twelve inch scrap of newspaper folded in half. Fold the newspaper around the matches until you're left with a three inch by 1/2 inch packet (approximate). Tie the folds up with sisal twine, and dip the packet in melted paraffin. In case of emergency the packet makes excellent tinder, and the matches will remain dry forever.

Ed Hartgrove
Ed Hartgrove's picture
Last seen: 3 years 9 months ago
Joined: Dec 20 2012 - 11:54am

That's pretty good, but if by happenstace, those (2) matches are blown out by the wind, what then? You'd probably be better off replacing those matches with a Bic lighter, if that's the kind of 'lifesaver' you'd trust your life on. Not saying that the matches wouldn't work. Just that 2 chances aren't very many.

As for the magnesium stick, you can drop it in the water, let the wind blow on it all day, and it still works. Just sayin'.

david spaulding
david spaulding's picture
Last seen: 8 months 2 weeks ago
Joined: Sep 12 2011 - 5:46pm

while I do not know anyone that was involved with this rescue, I find in my heart, these people are the definition of a hero.. to get a phone call and drop whatever you are doing to help someone, no matter when, no matter where, no matter the danger, takes a special kind of person. not only are they ready and willing, they are trained and educated on their own time.... Thank You First Responders

Howard B. Owens
Howard B. Owens's picture
Last seen: 2 days 11 hours ago
Joined: Apr 23 2008 - 3:05pm

It does ... and for anybody ready to step up and be that kind of special person, visit readygenesee.com. Volunteers are always needed and always welcomed in every department in our county.

Kyle Couchman
Kyle Couchman's picture
Last seen: 7 years 2 weeks ago
Joined: Dec 25 2009 - 8:54am

Sample size cans of wd40 work well too. Spray it on wet wood or tinder after it's lit and it'll burn just lond and hot enough to dry out a log w 8 inch diameter. Amazing the thing you learn winter fish and spring bullhead fishing in NY. The parrafin matches trick works well too. But most carry more than 1. Regular old roadflares work well too .

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