FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Just after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 30, the Jefferson County 911 dispatch center received a call reporting a missing elderly person. Early reports to the fire department indicated that the patient was an 85-year old male with dementia who had been missing for over two hours. Activated along with the Black River Volunteer Fire Department was the Black River Ambulance Squad, Black River Police Department, New York State Police Department, and the Jefferson County Sheriff's office.
Once on the scene, emergency personnel began coordinating a large-scale search for the patient. Police canine units were able to determine the direction the patient had left his residence, which aided first responders in continuing the search.
As the sun set and darkness began to fall, the urgency for rescuers to locate the victim became critical. A LifeNet Air Ambulance helicopter was dispatched out of Watertown International Airport to aid in the search from above. The LifeNet aircraft was unable to establish radio communication with the crews on the ground and returned to the airport to troubleshoot their systems.
With the situation on the ground becoming increasingly dire as the victim had been missing for several hours, and given that the area was now in complete darkness, the ground search situation was nearly impossible due to the vast amount of terrain that had to be covered.
1st. Lt. Austin Welch, a pilot with 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, responded to a call for assistance from the Black River Ambulance, where he works as a volunteer. Welch made contact with a 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry AH-64D Apache Helicopter piloted by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Greg Van Horn and 1st Lt. Kyle Miller, who were coincidentally out on a training mission to enhance proficiency on the use of the Apache's Night Vision Systems.
'Having the opportunity to utilize skills learned as an Army Aviator to help save this gentleman was incredibly fulfilling,' said Welch. 'Our local community outside of Fort Drum is important to all of us, given all the amazing support they provide for the Soldiers of Fort Drum. Having the chance to give back to our teammates off-post in this small way was particularly meaningful for all of us. We were glad to assist in the efforts of the local first responders and look to continue to find ways to support one another in the future.'
After receiving a grid location from Welch, the pilots arrived above the Black River area to aid in the search efforts. This new mission not only enhanced their nighttime training opportunities, but provided a tremendous asset to the ground searchers through the use the aircraft's Forward Looking Infrared Camera systems.
To communicate, Welch, with the help of police officers on the ground, reprogrammed an Emergency Medical Services radio in order to talk with the Apache flight crew, which normally is unable to communicate with civilian ground radios due to the different bands their respective systems use.
Once in positive communication, ground responders directed the Apache crew to search on the north end of Black River where the victim was known to take walks.
Also in the area conducting a training mission was an HH-60 MEDEVAC Black Hawk helicopter from C Company, 3-10 General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Timothy Woznica and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brandon Aldrich, with assistance from flights medic, Staff Sgt. Andrew Torres, and crew chief, Sgt. Barry Johnston.
Upon hearing the radio traffic from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Apache, they quickly volunteered to aid in the search.
Once on scene, the Black Hawk crew was also able to communicate on the EMS radio being utilized by ground responders. They were directed to search on the southern part of Black River.
Incredibly, using the HH-60's Forward Looking Infrared Camera, the flight crew located the victim. He was spotted in the river, clinging to a branch, about a half mile downstream from the search party's command post.
Communicating with ground responders, the Black Hawk hovered over the location of the victim and directed the first responders on the ground to his location. The first responders had to move almost a mile back, into the woods, through thick brush to locate the victim. Using cues from the flight crew, who oriented the ground responders to the victim's location, they ultimately were able to reach him and rescue him.
'That night the mission was very unexpected,' said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Timothy Woznica, the HH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot whose crew helped locate the missing man. 'Once we were assigned to assist, we had to switch focus from training to a real-world mission. We are extremely happy we could assist in locating the individual and getting him to safety.'
The victim, who had sustained significant injuries while he had been missing, was taken to Samaritan Hospital in Watertown, New York, by a Black River ambulance, where he made a full recovery.