New Mexico Search and Rescue planned a “mock mission” exercise for volunteers over the weekend, a big event including search teams from around the state and aircraft and pilots from the Civil Air Patrol.
It didn’t happen.
The training was cancelled after a 42-year-old Mora resident looking for antlers shed by deer and elk got lost near Ojo Feliz in Mora County north of Las Vegas, N.M. The exercise turned real.
“We had a lot of resources for this mission,” Richard Goldstein, a field coordinator for Santa Fe Search and Rescue, said Monday. “In this case, it really was fortunate there was this mock mission training scheduled.”
About 65 volunteers showed up to comb the area on foot, Goldstein and Bob Baker, area commander for New Mexico Search and Rescue, said.
“There were teams from as far south as Socorro,” Goldstein said.
Two Civil Air Patrol planes — one from Santa Fe, one from Los Alamos — aided in the search, as did a New Mexico National Guard Black Hawk helicopter.
But ultimately it was a team from Santa Fe Search and Rescue that on Saturday found the missing man after he had spent two nights lost in the wilderness.
Goldstein said he wasn’t allowed to disclose the man’s name because of privacy concerns.
“He’d gone out with a friend on Thursday and took a break,” Goldstein said. The friend was tired and wanted to stop for the night. But the man who got lost wanted to press on for a bit longer. When he didn’t return the next day, his friend searched for him without success. But returning to the place where they had stopped, he noticed his friend had picked up his backpack, which contained food and water.
Even though the missing man wasn’t as familiar with the terrain as was his friend, he was far from helpless. “Fortunately, he’d had wilderness survival training experience and outdoors skills,” Baker said.
Search and Rescue was notified about the disappearance about 5:30 p.m. Friday.
Goldstein said this came right on the heels of another search operation — the hunt for a 19-year-old man who had last been seen at Black Mesa Casino at San Felipe Pueblo who eventually was found near N.M. 14, many miles east of the casino.
Sometimes Search and Rescue is able to use cellphone technology to locate missing people. In the Mora man’s case, however, the antler hunter had left his mobile phone at home.
The team from Santa Fe found him about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. “He was a little dehydrated and obviously hungry but he was alright,” Goldstein said. “We gave him food and water and called his wife. I also called his mom.”
Goldstein said he interviewed the man to see whether he wanted or needed medical services. “He was tired and sunburned on his arm but otherwise he was in good shape,” he said.
The man’s wife arrived at the “incident base” and the couple shared a “very emotional embrace,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein, a retired lawyer who moved to Santa Fe with his wife about 10 years ago, said moments like this help keep him going.
“The reward of seeing people reunited with their families is worth all the work,” he said.
But that wasn’t the only search and rescue mission in New Mexico over the weekend.
A 25-year-old Las Cruces man who was visiting his mother in Lordsburg in southwestern New Mexico decided he wanted to go see the Gila River, Baker said.
But this man got his 2002 Ford Taurus stuck off-road Saturday, then got out of the car and started walking. “He got himself turned around,” Baker said.
Unlike the Mora man, the Las Cruces man wasn’t trained in wilderness survival. “He was thrown into a wilderness situation without tools and equipment,” Baker said.
At one point he called his mother on his cellphone, but he wasn’t sure where he was or the location of his car.
Search and Rescue was called in about 10:30 p.m. Saturday. The lost man’s call to his mother had pinged a cell tower in Arizona, Baker said. This in itself wasn’t enough to locate the man.
However, Baker said, Search and Rescue asked for the help of the Florida-based Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which have experts in “cellphone forensics,” Baker said. They were able to narrow the scope of the search.
A Civil Air Patrol plane spotted the Ford Taurus on Sunday morning and about four hours later, a team of Search and Rescue volunteers located the lost man. About 10 volunteers helped in the ground search.
“He was dehydrated and his family wanted to take him to a hospital in Silver City,” Baker said.
Baker, who has been involved in Search and Rescue for about 17 years, said it’s not uncommon to have two large rescue missions in a single weekend.
“I remember back in 2007 or 2008, at one point we had four missions around the state running simultaneously,” he said. “We couldn’t do it without all our great volunteers.”