Damn, I was beginning to wonder why I did this. Search and Rescue is a long job with a low success rate for the individual teams. You always hope you will be the one that makes the find and that you bring them out. The worst is when you are too late.
The ringing of the phone had brought me out of a deep sleep. From what the commander said this was going to be a high profile search. A plane went down in the mountains west of here. They had an approximate area, and the search planes should have an exact location shortly after sunrise. We would be sent in to check for survivors. This was the routine that we played out a couple times a year. What made this one special was that some bigwig and his party had been on this plane. That meant the media would be at the command post almost as fast as we could get there.
Another thing that could become a problem was the weather. A cold front was due to pass through within 72 hours bringing high winds and snow. If we couldn't get there quickly, any survivors of the crash would probably die of exposure.
Before I could get dried off from my shower, my partner was sitting in the bedroom waiting for me. Thor sat watching me dress in my warmest clothes, anticipating my next move before I could make it. He led the way down the stairs to the closet where I kept my pack and his harness. Thor then knew that we were indeed going to work. His excitement started to affect me and I became more anxious to get started.
The van pulled up and I piled our gear into the back. Simon Walters, the base commander lived close enough that we would often ride together. With him driving the hundred or so miles to the command site, I could relax a bit and think about what we would soon be up against. However for some reason, staring into the darkness that enveloped us, my mind wandered back. Back to a time I would give anything to not think about again.
I had joined Search and Rescue as an extension of my job as an EMT. I was partnered with a Sable German Shepherd named Heidi that had already been trained. Our first efforts were comical because I had no idea what I doing. The instructor finally explained that I had to learn to watch and listen to the dog. We did much better after that, but it wasn't until I learned to trust her completely that we really meshed as a team. I had to earn her trust as well.
Things changed the day I sat on the ground in frustration at another missed decoy. I was squatted down holding my head in my hands, ready to throw the towel in. Suddenly there was this big black muzzle resting in the bend of my elbow. I looked over and stared into those dark brown eyes. She was giving me a look that I learned was her complete trust and love of me. I gave her a scratch behind the ears and told myself that we could do this. And we did.
I was living in California at the time and most of the work was finding lost children in the parks and hills. We were a great team, winning awards from competitions and racking up a good record of rescues.
But mostly we bonded as a team and as best friends. This was a good thing since my wife had decided that she needed to find herself with a banker that made about five times as much as I did. I came home one evening to find most of the house cleaned out and a note that explained that I would be getting the papers from her lawyer in the mail. All the emotions that I had welled up within me and I went into every room alternating between rage and complete desperation. Heidi followed me, not understanding except that I was very upset. I spent the first night in a stupor, staring at the little TV my ex had left and drinking whiskey until I passed out.
I spent the first few weeks in a deep depression, just going through the motions of surviving. Heidi got into the habit of sitting beside me and laying her huge head in my lap. Her big brown eyes would look into mine trying to tell me it would be alright. That was the look of absolute love and devotion.
I was so down on relationships that I spent most of my time with Heidi in practice and advanced training. She passed the explosives test with flying colors, and won several awards.
We came into our own when an earthquake in the northern part of the state. It was a strong one and caused extensive damage. Heidi and I were assigned to check for survivors in the rubble. We went into the search area and went to work. I could see her orange vest as she went around piles of rubble, her nose sniffing for any signs that humans were buried.
We were about to move on to another area when Heidi barked and then sat in front of a pile that just hours before had been a four-plex. This was her signal that she had made a find. We moved to the side and signaled for a crew with the proper equipment take over. They started moving the rubble and within a short time the man in the hole shouted out that they had found a young man trapped but still alive.
I pulled Heidi's favorite toy out and gave it to her for her reward. He had been our third find that day and I was proud of her. Heidi even made the national evening news. The crews caught footage of her as she moved around a pile of rubble, her nose sniffing the cracks and under the concrete for any scent that would mean a person was alive in the pile of bricks and wood that once had been a house. Of course, she could have cared less about the cameras and lights. She knew her job and she would do it without any distractions.
It was late in the day when were moving through piles of debris near what had been a strip mall. There was an aftershock that caused the ground to move a bit. I was told later that the movement caused a propane tank that was hidden under the rubble to explode. All that I heard was a deafening explosion and I felt myself thrown about 20 feet into what once was the parking lot. My ribs hurt like hell and there was blood running down the side of my face. I knew Heidi had been in front of me and I frantically searched for her.
When I spotted her body lying on the ground about 10 feet from me, I could see the piece of twisted metal that seemed to have magically grown out of her rib cage. I staggered over to her calling her name. When I knelt down next to her, she raised her head up and gave me a look that was filled with pain. I knew that there was no hope, she had already lost a lot of blood and what was still trailing out was the bright red of oxygenated blood. The piece of steel had gone through her lungs. I picked up her head and cradled it in my lap. She gave a couple of feeble wags of her tail and gave my hand a lick. That had always been her signal that she was there for me and that she loved me. I stroked her muzzle and the side of her face as I watched the once brilliant brown eyes lost their luster, and her body gave a final gasp of life. There had been nothing I could do to save my best friend, but at least she felt me there as she passed.
How long I sat there completely despondent trying to shield her lifeless body from the light rain that had started I still don't know. We were found by fire rescue when the dusk of the day had started to envelop us. They tried to get me to move, but I simply could not just leave Heidi lying there. The search supervisor finally assured me that she would be taken care of, and they placed me on a gurney for the ride to the crowded emergency room.
Heidi's ashes were put to rest with honor. She was a hero of the fire department in our small town ever since she had found one of their own after he had broken his leg in a fall. They gave her full honors in a memorial that did her service proud. I decided that I could no longer handle the emotional hurt and decided to retire from Search and Rescue. Never again would I have another dog.
Three years passed and I had started a new life. I had moved to the mountain town of Telluride, joined the fire department as one of 3 EMTs, and even started a social life. I definitely did not want to settle down, but the snow bunnies were always ready for a good time, even if it was just dinner or drinks. Something more happened often enough to keep me satisfied.
Then came the day that the local group found out that I had been in Search and Rescue. I was talking to another of the EMTs about a couple of rescues that had turned out really well. We continued to talk about how the mountain passes would be different to search from what I was familiar with where I had come from. Something must have clicked when he stared at my nameplate and grinned.
"Tim Rivers. You had a dog that won the western regional championships two years in a row. That was you, wasn't it?"
I reluctantly admitted that I was. And before I could say I didn't want to talk about that, Jimmy was waving over a small group of people that had been standing near the pool tables.
As the 5 men and 3 women approached, Jimmy too loudly stated, "Simon, you remember when you got your ass royally kicked in the regionals 4 years ago?"
"Of course I remember, you won't ever let me forget it will ya?" said a man about my height with black hair and a face that I vaguely remembered. "Ham and I were just outclassed."
Jimmy, being shorter, had to reach up to clasp the man on the shoulder. "I want you to meet the man who showed you how it was done." With that he indicated me with a slightly drunken sweep of his arm.
I was very embarrassed as I extended my hand. Simon had a huge grin as he grabbed my hand and shook it with vigor. "I have to admit that you did deserve that trophy. I never have seen a team work as well together. I was looking forward to the rematch the next year. I was surprised when you weren't there."
It was like a shot in the gut. I looked down into my half empty glass. "Heidi was killed in a rescue 8 months later." I said it quietly, but Simon caught it. His hand went to my shoulder as a sign of support. The others gathered around and offered their sympathies as well. We ended talking of rescues and the funny things that could happen while on them.
They finally convinced me to help with some training. The memories bothered me at first, but I forced them behind me and we were soon practicing one weekend a month and I was really starting to enjoy it.
Janice, one of the 3 women that were in the group, came to me one day with a problem. Her black lab, Ditz, was getting well past the age where he could still go out. She was looking for another dog that was still trainable so Ditz could retire and live out the rest of his days in comfort. I suggested a kennel that I knew of on the Colorado Utah border that trained working dogs of all breeds. After much batting of baby blue eyes and pleading looks, I promised to take a couple of days off and go with her.
We arrived at the kennels and looked at over 60 dogs. The owner of the kennel was up on the traits of each of his animals and was helpful in steering Janice toward the animals best suited to her. As she was choosing from 3 finalists, I wondered back around to a set of kennels that we had missed.
Inside the third one from the end was a German Shepherd put that looked to be about 3 months old. His ears were much too big for his head, but were standing straight up. His eyes were watching every move I made with interest. I thought there was no harm in giving him some attention. He watched closely until I knelt next to the chain link, then came bounding up almost tripping on his huge paws. He pawed on the gate and then licked and nibbled on my fingers as I put them through the wire.
The owner of the kennels came up and opened the gate so I could look at him closer. His body was sound, the shoulders felt right. The owner assured me that both Sire and Bitch were clear on their hips and that this fellow showed no sign of dysphasia. He also gave me the linage and I recognized some names that were previous show and obedience champions. I was holding the pup in my arms trying to tell the owner that I really didn't want another dog, when Janice, walked up leading the yellow lab she had chosen. "Looks like love at first sight, at least on his part." she stated as he gave me a swipe of his tongue up my cheek.
I kept trying to come up with excuses why I didn't want or need another dog. Excuses that Janice would immediately would shoot down. When we finally left, there were two dogs in the back of the SUV. I had firmly decided that this fellow would be a pet, not a working dog. I was NOT going to get into that situation again.
I should have known that the fates were against me. Thor, who was named after I heard him bark the first time, had a thing for my socks. He would drag them out of the hamper and come in carrying them in his mouth. I tried to hide them, and he would find them. I threw out some of his chewed up toys, and he would trace them to the trashcans. It finally got to be a game for me to hide his favorite toys and he would keep looking until he would find them.
At the insistence of Janice and the rest of the group, I started working him in the basics. Just obedience and a little "hide and seek". He took to it like it was second nature. I finally gave up and started working him in earnest. We went to classes and started working on the advance techniques. The day Thor turned a year old we were standing on the grounds for certification. He performed perfectly that day and we went home with the certificate and the orange vest that told the world he was part of an elite group that could and did often save lives. That was also the day that I finally decided to let Heidi have her rest. I owed Thor that much since he had come so far.
Since that day, two years ago, we had worked in the mountains around our home. Mostly hikers that had lost their way, and fools skiing out of bounds on the slopes. It kept me in shape and Thor was always eager to go.
I was jolted out of my memories as Simon pulled the big SUV into the lot of a campground. Simon parked near a tent that had been hastily erected. He headed into the tent and I started pulling the equipment out of the back of the Suburban. My backpack, Thor's vest and lead, extra water and rations. Everything was in order. We then headed into the tent to get our search area.
The light of the two lanterns cast a glow in the interior illuminating the radio station, the chairs, maps and other items that were needed. I headed over to the most important piece of equipment in the pre-dawn chill. Filling a cup with the strong, black coffee, I moved over to see what Simon was looking at.
There were several topographical maps scattered on the fold up table. Simon was studying one that showed a mountainside that had everything that would cause problems for a search. Steep grades, large areas of forests interspersed with boulders, these obstacles made the chance of surviving a crash very low, and finding that crash quickly even lower.
He pointed to a rough section with his chubby finger. "Tim, you and Thor are going to be dropped at the only landing site and you are to get to this area. These four grid areas are yours."
I was still studying the map when the other 3 teams came in. We were discussing just what we were up against, when Simon called for our attention. "I have been told that we will have reinforcements here by late this afternoon, but for now it is just us. Radios will not reach back to the camp, so you will have to relay to Richard who will be on the top of the ridge. You have your assignments, so head out and be careful."
We all took a last sip of coffee and picked up our equipment. The chopper was warming up in the parking lot and we headed towards it. We settled into the old army helicopter and prepared for the ride. On my left was Janice. Her lab, Boomer, had become a favorite among us all due to his friendly personality. To my right was Jose', the newest member of our group. He and his Golden retriever had been certified only a few months ago. But his enthusiasm and love of a challenge quickly made him a favorite. Sitting there, Jose's head came just to my shoulder and he was constantly teasing about my being too tall to fit in most places. I in turn, would tell him he had to climb a ladder just to see over the back of Chester, his dog.
However there was no joking during this ride. We were all deadly serious. We knew that if anyone had survived the crash, their continued survival depended on us doing our jobs.
Thor was not too happy flying in the rocking, rolling motion of the chopper and he was more than ready to jump out when we touched down. As soon as the chopper was out of the way, I checked the GPS I was carrying and headed to the search site.
Thor was setting a quick pace and I was soon peeling off my parka. The air was crisp and clear this high up but the physical exertion of moving through the underbrush and over rocks made up for the cool air. We kept moving in a zigzag pattern covering the area that the plane was thought to have gone down in. It was a slow process, but it made sure we didn't miss anything.
I had just sat down on a rock for a rest and a snack as well as a drink for Thor. Scanning the area as I ate, I saw a glint of metal reflecting the pale sunlight that was coming through the gathering clouds. I radioed to the relay man on top of the mountain my position and that I had a possible find. Then Thor and I headed to toward the metal.
About halfway there, Thor lifted his head and smelled the air for a moment. Getting his bearings, he stopped the random movements and headed straight along an invisible trail only he could decipher.
I saw that it was indeed the plane that we were searching for. Or at least what was left. The right wing had been torn off and the fuselage had been ripped open. There was someone moving around as I approached so I knew there was at least one survivor. We moved quickly into the rocky clearing calling out who we were. A young woman looked up from wiping the blood from a man leaning against the wreckage. She was rather small but with a pretty face even with the cut that was across her cheek. What was the most surprising was the calm that she greeted us with. She rose from her crouch and calmly stood waiting for me to get there.
I dropped Thor's lead and knelt to check on the injured man. He had a couple broken ribs and a good-sized gash on his head. His left arm was broken as well. An older gentleman, well dressed, seemed to be handling himself well in this situation. I left him alone for a moment and turned to the woman.
"Are there any other survivors?" I asked quickly.
"One of the Senator's friends is still alive, but I didn't move him. I think he may have injured his back. The pilot is dead and the co-pilot doesn't look like he will make it without help soon."
I quickly did a check on the men she had indicated and found that she was right on the mark. I came out and radioed that the plane had been located along with the passenger information to the relay on the mountain. There would be no landing so the chopper would have to take them out with a winch and basket. The radio crackled and I was assured that we would have what was needed within an hour. The Senator was first to be readied for transport. I made him comfortable as I could with what was in my pack then turned to the co-pilot and the friend. Finally I got to the woman.
I got her to sit down on a boulder and did a quick assessment. Giving her my best 'you're gonna be fine' smile, I introduced myself and the big furry goofball that was watching her with as much intensity as I was. "My name is Tim and I promise not to hurt you any more than I absolutely have to. The guy with the big ears is my partner, Thor. You will have to forgive his manners, he hasn't learned not to drool over a pretty woman."
She gave a pleasing little chuckle then groaned. I gently checked her over for signs of trauma. She had a laceration just above her hairline and a badly swollen wrist, but I could not find a break. She also said she had a terrible headache so a concussion was a possibility. The cut on her face had bled quite a bit but when I cleaned it out, it wasn't very deep. She was the least injured of the survivors. She said that she was not allergic to anything, so I gave her some Ibuprofen and splinted her injured wrist.
She then introduced herself as Kelly McMakin and she was the senator's stepdaughter. Even though they were not close, he had asked her to join him for this vacation. He needed her for publicity since he was running for re-election as a family first candidate.
With four survivors and only room for three in the chopper, it would have to make a second trip. The co-pilot had internal injuries that I was sure of. The senator's friend would need a backboard and special handling. The good thing was that another EMT or flight nurse would lower down to help with the evacuation. The bad news was that someone would have to stay with me until they could return. I explained the situation to the woman and she volunteered to stay with me until they could make another trip. In addition to just being good sense, I wanted to spend a little more time with her.