167th Airlift Wing Airmen assist in rescue efforts

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Sherree Grebenstein
  • 167Airlift Wing
Two Airmen with the West Virginia Air National
Guard's 167th Airlift Wing are being hailed as heroes for their efforts in
helping rescue a father and son trapped on the side of a snow-covered
mountain during the Blizzard of 2009.

After the 167th Airlift Wing's Security Force Squadron was contacted by
the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department requesting a military HUMVEE for
help in reaching the stranded men, Staff Sgt. Matthew J. Drallette and Staff
Sgt. Stephen A. Ring left to join in the rescue efforts at the Sleepy Creek
Wildlife Management Area off Lodge Road in Hedgesville, W.Va., on the night
of Dec. 19, 2009.

A 49-year-old father and his 29-year-old son had reportedly been riding
two Honda all-terrain vehicles off a towpath when the four-wheelers and
their riders overturned on the side of the mountain in an estimated three
feet of snow.

"They (the four-wheelers) flipped multiple times and were completely
covered in snow and torn up," recalled Drallette, a firefighter and
emergency medical technician assigned to the Wing's fire department.

And the men didn't fare much better either on the bitter cold, snowy
December night.

Both men were reportedly seriously injured and suffering from
hypothermia, said Drallette of Inwood, W.Va.

The snowstorm which dumped more than 22 inches of snow in some parts of
the Eastern Panhandle beginning on Dec. 18, 2009, hampered search and rescue

"It was tricky," Ring said of driving from the air base in Martinsburg to
where the search was going on in Hedgesville.

The Middleway, W.Va., man said a tractor-trailer had jackknifed near an
exit on Interstate 81 and accidents abounded as they drove toward the rescue
effort off Lodge Road.

"He was the only person that made it to the staging area without getting
stuck," Drallette said.

When the Airmen got to the staging area for operations at the foot of the
mountain they learned that the father had called rescuers from his cell
phone and was preparing for the worst, Drallette said.

Ring said the accident had occurred about 4 p.m. that afternoon and
Drallette estimated that rescuers weren't able to reach the two men until
about six hours later.

Due to the narrow path up the hill, the HUMVEE driven by Ring, a member
of the Wing's Security Forces Squadron, could not be used to negotiate up
the mountain's treacherous snow-laden terrain. It was estimated that the
path up the mountain was only about 8 and-a-half feet wide. With the
HUMVEE's 8 feet width, rescuers determined there simply wasn't enough wiggle

"It was too uncomfortable to try," Drallette said.

The Hedgesville Volunteer Fire Department attempted to use a Bob Cat skid
steer to maneuver up the mountain with little success too. Two six-wheel
utility vehicles also attempted the feat but failed.

"Their skid steer load almost slid off the side of the mountain,"
Drallette noted.

As for the utility vehicles, Drallette said they sunk down in the packed
snow and couldn't move.

Rescuers finally managed to get to the top of the mountain using a
military-style four-wheel Blazer bearing chains on its rugged tires.

As Ring stayed at the base of the mountain with the HUMVEE, Drallette
traveled with two Hedgesville firefighters, a paramedic and the Blazer's
driver to the top of the mountain. Once there, they went down the other side
on foot searching for the father and son.

"You couldn't see much in the dark between the snow and trees," Drallette
said. "The son used the light from his cell phone to signal us."

About a half -mile to three-quarter mile down the mountain rescuers
spotted the two men.

Extracting the stranded men from the deep snow would prove challenging,
especially for Drallette who wound up slinging the son over his right
shoulder to carry him to safety.

It took Drallette and two of the Hedgesville firefighters about 30
minutes to pull the father to the top of the mountain after they had loaded
him into a sked rescue basket.

"It was so cold that the restraint straps were frozen," Drallette said.
"We ended up lashing him in with a rope."

"We were pulling him up the mountain and not getting a good footing
because of the snow, we were slipping," he said. "It was very unpleasant."

Since only five people could fit into the Blazer which took the injured
man back down to the bottom of the mountain, Drallette opted to stay put.

But not for long.

The Airman said he was concerned about the son's welfare so he headed
back down to check on his vital signs. He knew it would take the Blazer
about an hour just to get back to the top of the mountain after it had
delivered the father to rescuers down below at base operations.

"They were out there close to six hours before we made contact with
them," Drallette said. "They were in a pretty rough shape."

Adding: "Time was running out."

Such was the case that the Airman slung the injured son over his right
shoulder and proceeded to carry him to the top of the mountain.

"I did it at about 30 feet at a time," Drallette said. "I'd carry him and
then set him down."

But the Airman wasn't resting. Rather backtracking to get the men's
personal items scattered nearby after the accidents.

Drallette estimated it took him about 35 minutes to get the son up to the
top of the mountain. He said he was able to move a little quicker with him
because he didn't appear as severely injured as his father.

Once up on the top of the mountain, the son advised Drallette that his
backpack was still down below. Sensing that the son really wanted it, the
Airman left and retrieved it for him.

"That was my fifth time up the mountain," he said. "By that time my legs
were dead."

After the men were transported to City Hospital in Martinsburg. W.Va.,
they were then reportedly flown to Winchester Medical Center for treatment,
Drallette said.

When asked how he felt about helping to save the lives of the two
stranded men, Drallette chalked it up to simply doing his duty.

"It's our job," said the Wing's firefighter, who noted that 80 percent of
the calls that the base's fire station receives are of a medical nature.

Ring said they were doing what they are trained to do.

"It's just like coming to work except I got to go off base," he said.

Drallette said the rescue efforts show how well the 167th Airlift Wing
and community can work together when called upon.

"It's nice to know that when things go wrong we can help the community,"
he said.