Nevada Air guard aids search for missing climbers | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada Air guard aids search for missing climbers

Jarid Shipley
Appeal Staff Writer

Despite several promising leads, the crew of the Nevada C-130 aircraft helping in the search for three missing climbers on Oregon’s Mount Hood came up empty Saturday.

With a break in the cold, windy weather, the aircraft was tasked Saturday to help in the search for the three men because of an infrared and zooming camera lens mounted to the aircraft’s nose, one of the only planes in the country equipped with the technology.

“This is the only one in the Air Force, so if they want this technology, it’s coming from Reno,” said Master Sgt. Craig Madole, from the Nevada Air Guard’s 152nd Intelligence Squadron.

The temporary weather break paved the way for the biggest push yet since the three, two Texans and a New Yorker, were reported missing a week ago today on what was to have been a quick climb of the 11,239-foot peak.

The crew flew from Reno on Saturday morning and made a brief stop in Portland to pick up Capt. Ross Wilson, a parachute jumper from the 304th rescue squadron who was familiar with terrain.

The airplane concentrated on the northeastern slope, where strong winds were preventing helicopter crews from conducting a thorough search.

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“The plane has the ability to see a much wider swath and let the helicopters concentrate on the climbing routes,” Wilson said. “My purpose was to relate the information about the mountain to the people on the ground and get them searching in the right areas.”

The aircraft flew at 12,500 feet in 5 to 10-mile circles around the mountain for about five hours, allowing the sensor operators to scan using the infrared and television cameras to search for signs of the climbers.

“It’s looking at the side of a mountain with a regular television camera. It’s still hard to find and see things. We had quite a few points of interest today,” said Senior Airman Rex Barton.

“When we are looking at the infrared, the climbers should be the hottest thing on the screen. Both of us are fully trained to distinguish the different types of hot zones and find the hikers,” said Staff Sgt. Sean Morrison. “If they are out there, I hope to God we find them.”

As part of their payload, the plane carried a small survival kit that could be parachuted to the climbers had they been spotted. The kit contains radios, food, matches, water, a knife, fishing line, flares and a raft that can be used for cover.

The technology being used in searching for the climbers was also put to use following Hurricane Katrina to coordinate transportation efforts and judge the movement of levees.

Before dawn, 25 rescue mountaineers began making their way up the south side and another 30 started from the north side, Wampler said. Both teams started at about 6,000 feet.

A team from the south reached the 10,600-foot level, hoping to reach the summit and drop down the steep north side to where Kelly James, 48, of Dallas, Texas, was last reported to be holed up, possibly with injuries, in a snow cave.

The clear, cold morning turned foul by midday, before searchers on two sides of the mountain and helicopter crews retired for the night because of weather and darkness, finding no trace of the three men.

“It wasn’t quite the dream picture we had hoped for today. But there is the chance tomorrow will be a better day,” said Sgt. Sean Collinson of the Clackamas County sheriff’s office.

There has been no sign of James, Brian Hall, 37, of Dallas, and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke, 36, of New York City, since Dec. 10. The latter two started back down the mountain on Dec. 9, apparently to get help for James, James said in a four-minute call to his family, the last contact with him.

The last clue to the climbers’ whereabouts was a signal returned from James’ cell phone on Tuesday.

About 20 friends and relatives gathered at the small airport at the base of the mountain Saturday morning as two Blackhawk helicopters lifted off support ground searchers.

Hopes rose at about midday when the C-130 crew spotted two unidentified people on the mountain, but they turned out to be searchers.

“God is with them, he will keep them safe,” said Maria Kim, Cooke’s mother, reflecting a faith-based optimism that has kept relatives hopeful throughout the ordeal.

“The mountain has no right to keep our sons.”

Family members and friends exchanged handshakes and hugs with the helicopter crews before liftoff. “Go guys!” shouted one, and others gave thumbs-ups as the Blackhawks floated up.

“They’re going to get it, they’re going to get it,” said Karen James, Kelly’s wife, as family members hugged and watched the helicopters leave.

“They’re strong, they’re tough, they’re going to get them,” she said.

Low on fuel and with darkness pending, the C-130 reluctantly gave up the search shortly after 4 p.m.

“I’m pretty disappointed. I thought today was our best chance, but we’ll keep looking,” Barton said.

The Nevada Air National Guard will continue to search the mountain around the clock with alternating crews.

The Hood River County sheriff’s office, the lead agency of many taking part in the search, said efforts would continue today. After that, “We’ll have to see,” said Sheriff Joe Wampler.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story. Nevada Appeal reporter Jarid Shipley accompanied 152nd Squadron in its search on Saturday. Contact him at jshipley@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1217.