Nellis rescue team saves hiker

  • Published
  • By Capt. Justin McVay
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
A combat search and rescue team stationed here rescued a hiker missing in Zion National Park, Utah, Monday.

The team consisted of Airmen from the 58th and 66th Rescue Squadrons. The pararescuemen on the mission were Tech. Sgt. Dana Vaughan and Staff Sgts. Jeremy Diola, Ted Rajala and Eric Kelly, all from the 58th RQS. The helicopter crew was Lt. Col. T.J. Porterfield, the lead pilot and squadron commander; Maj Scott Grundahl, co-pilot; Master Sgt. Chris Heppel, flight engineer; and Staff Sgt. Bryan Clark, the aerial gunner.

The team received the request from the U.S. Park to assist in the search for Tom Gerhardt, a 55-year-old hiker from Chesapeake, Va., missing for more than 36 hours.

After receiving the call for help from the National Park Service, the team flew to Zion National Park for a detailed brief by park rangers. They immediately launched an aerial search, hoping to locate the missing man before nightfall. After an initial search revealed no signs of the missing hiker, the team landed, refueled the helicopter and prepared for another search attempt, this time after nightfall.

At 6:25 p.m. the second attempt launched, resuming in the area they had last searched. Equipped with night vision goggles, Within 5 minutes, Sergeant Rajala spotted a small light halfway up a mountain. On the third pass to investigate the light it began flashing, making it clear to the crew that a person on the ground was attempting to signal the team with the S.O.S. code. After confirmation that no other hikers had permits for the identified area, the aircrew determined that the person signaling must be the missing hiker.

The hiker was situated at 6,000 feet on a 70-degree slope in a deep crevice.

"After some planning, we lowered Staff Sgt. Jeremy Diola on a hoist from the helicopter right below the hiker," said Sergeant Eric Kelly.  Reaching the hiker, Sergeant Diola's initial medical assessment determined Mr. Gerhardt had no life-threatening injuries, enabling him to be hoisted up to the helicopter.

"Some people go through their entire career and never get a rescue like this one ... Sergeant Clark accomplished his less than two weeks after becoming fully qualified," said Maj. Grundahl.

Despite obstacles to the right and behind, the helicopter crew sustained a precise hover ensuring the safe recovery of the missing hiker.

"This rescue highlights the skill and dedication that is the hallmark of the 58th and 66th rescue team. Their perseverance and quick decision-making was instrumental in returning this man safely to his family," said Capt. Glen Frazier, 58 RQS director of operations. "They selflessly risked their lives ... so that others may live."

The aircrew transported the hiker to the national park helicopter pad where an ambulance transported him to a hospital. The search and rescue team then returned to Nellis. 

(Senior Airman Travis Edwards contributed to this story)