Response team rescues two Airmen during Arctic storm

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Justin Herman
  • 821st Air Base Group Public Affairs

With sub-zero temperatures, snow and winds exceeding 100 miles per hour, an unexpected Arctic storm struck here Jan. 24, trapping two Airmen without a heat source on the frigid tundra.

Airmen 1st Class John Wood and Marc Chavis were rescued from their stranded patrol truck after U.S. and Danish personnel located them and transported them to the medical facility here. They were treated for first-degree frostbite. The Airmen are assigned to the 821st Security Forces Squadron.

When the two patrolmen first set out across base to investigate an alarm, they had little idea what was in store for them.

“We were responding to an alarm on base when the blinding snow hit, and the visibility quickly dropped to zero,” Airman Wood said. “It was a Storm Condition Charlie, but soon we couldn’t even see the front end of the truck.”

Storm Condition Charlie, the fourth most hazardous of five weather classifications here, is declared when sustained winds reach above 35 knots and visibility is less than one-half mile. In the sunless Arctic winter, however, conditions can deteriorate in minutes.

“We started hitting snow drifts and radioed to the security forces control desk that we’d gotten stuck, but we couldn’t see through the snow to tell them exactly where we were,” Airman Wood said. “We stayed calm, and I thought, at least we have music to listen to. Then the power died on the truck and I thought, great, now we have nothing.”

During a Storm Condition Charlie the commander activates the Storm Operation Center, or SOC, a command and control room that coordinates action on base while all non-mission essential personnel are restricted to their living quarters. From the SOC, which has large maps of base, telephones, radios and weather-monitoring screens, Airmen can communicate with emergency response units and contractors across base.

“From the moment we stood up the SOC and began the recall roster, we realized that two of our Airmen were en route to respond to an alarm,” said Capt. Brint Woodruff, 821st SFS. “The storm happened so quickly that by the time we had an opportunity to turn them around it was too late.”

SOC personnel immediately began coordinating with the fire department’s emergency response team to find and retrieve the Airmen.

But the weather deteriorated further, and the fifth and most hazardous weather condition was declared: Storm Condition Delta.

Storm Condition Delta is called when sustained winds rise above 50 knots and visibility is less than 100 yards. Wind gusts eventually clocked in Jan. 24 at nearly 100 knots on some parts of base, with zero visibility and a chill factor hovering near -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The fire department dispatched four Danish emergency rescuers in two Caterpillar-tracked vehicles, called “Snow Cats,” to follow the estimated path the Airmen had taken.

“Over the radio they said that their toes were beginning to go cold, and then they said they hurt. That’s when we really became nervous,” said Maj. Steve LaCasse, commander of the 821st Support Squadron. “When the power had shut off in the truck we knew there was no heat. We knew how slow the Snow Cats were moving, too, and the fact that they were basically driving blind into the storm.”

Inside the stranded patrol truck the snow drifts were beginning to rise above the window. As the temperature continued to plummet, Airmen Wood and Chavis attempted to stay calm and remember their Arctic survival training. The SOC attempted to guide the rescue crew toward the one landmark the security forces troops could make out in the blizzard: a distant pair of orange lights.

“They needed to keep their wits about them,” said Capt. John Altevers, 821st SPTS and an Air Force medic for 18 years. “Their toes had gone numb, and they needed to use their body temperature to keep their extremities warm.”

More bad news was on the way, though, when one of the two Snow Cats broke down, forcing all four rescuers to take refuge in one vehicle. Despite the challenges, SOC personnel continued to work diligently on grids deducing which roads the Airmen likely traveled on and the origin of the orange lights.

Using guidance radioed from Captain Woodruff and information from commander’s call the week before, the lost Airmen emptied their Arctic survival gear bags and put on the extra gear, including insulated boots, pants and extra blankets.

“We lost feeling from the ankles down, so the medic told us to take off the boots and put each other’s feet in each other’s parka,” Airman Wood said. “It never crossed my mind to panic, though, since I knew they were out looking for us, and they’d get us.”

Finally, there was a breakthrough in the search.

“We were able to narrow our search grid down to one road,” Major LaCasse said. “We finally figured out where the two orange lights were coming from, and sent the last remaining Snow Cat out to find them.”

The stranded Airmen and truck were soon discovered; they were immediately transported to the hospital for emergency care.

Medical personnel released the Airmen from the hospital the next morning with no permanent injuries. Through a base-wide effort combining U.S. and Danish personnel, what could have been a grave situation instead became a real-world lesson in polar survival no one will soon forget.

“The professionalism of the SOC Wednesday allowed its role of personnel accountability and the rescue operation to occur simultaneously,” Captain Woodruff said. “I personally talked to the Airmen when they got back. Even with the lethal conditions never did they panic because of their confidence in the U.S. and Danish members of Team Thule out there looking for them.”

“And considering everything they had going against them,” he said, “that’s a lot of confidence.”