KAILUA-KONA — A mix of light snow and rain was falling high on the slopes of Maunakea Thursday evening when a U.S. Army helicopter spotted a lost and cold mountain biker as daylight faded.
With the inclement weather momentarily lifted, the HH-60 MEDEVAC Black Hawk that had been circling the area for some time quickly set down nearly 12,000 feet up the island’s tallest mountain. Army medics hopped out and scooped up the 53-year-old European man.
The time was about 6 p.m., nearly six hours after the foreign national had called the Hawaii Fire Department for help after leaving a hunter access road and becoming disoriented on a side trail somewhere above 8,000 feet in elevation, said Pohakuloa Training Area Fire Chief Eric Moller.
“The medevac crew did an amazing job. The military guys that were up there were in an area that they are not familiar with, under less-than-ideal conditions with the weather that was coming in and extreme elevation at 12,000 feet,” Moller said. “They were willing to put it on the line, staying out there for an hour and half to give this guy every opportunity to be rescued.”
“And, it paid off.”
The Hawaii Fire Department said in a press release it received a call from the man at 12:17 p.m. Thursday. The caller told dispatchers that he’d biked all the way from Holualoa in North Kona and had become lost while mountain biking on the northeastern slopes of Maunakea.
The department immediately commenced a search, however, once it was determined the missing man was likely above the altitude capabilities of the county’s helicopter, the fire department requested assistance from the U.S. Army at Pohakuloa Training Area under a mutual aid agreement.
“They were doing their best on getting to the area, but after they exhausted their capabilities they called and asked if we could assist,” said Moller, who noted the Army’s involvement began around 4 p.m.
The launch of the medevac Black Hawk was quickly approved by PTA Commander Lt. Col. JR Borce along with the deployment of three two-man ground rescue teams.
“We didn’t for sure know exactly where the person was. We got the ping off the cellphone but that’s not always reliable so we went in three directions,” Moller said noting the ground search included Mana and Skyline roads and the upper road on Maunakea.
Using grid coordinates, the ground and air teams narrowed the search and focused on the upper road, Moller said. But that couldn’t have been done without the assistance of Hawaii County’s helicopter and pilot Paul Darryl, who relayed information between the Army helicopter and command at PTA.
“There was no way for me to directly talk to the Black Hawk,” Moller said. “Chopper 1 was kind of the communications node up there.”
But, the Black Hawk couldn’t see what was happening below due to cloud cover and bad weather, forcing the crew to run in a race-track formation for some time.
“Then, the weather kind of lifted and they saw the patient on the ground,” Moller said. “They quickly set down, the medic went and got him, and they flew him directly to North Hawaii” Community Hospital.
At the time of the rescue, the PTA ground crews were less than a half-mile away, Moller said.
The Hawaii Fire Department indicated in a press release the man suffered minor injuries. Moller described his injuries as being from “cold weather exposure.” Temperatures on the mountain ranged in the 30s Thursday.
Lynn Scully, spokeswoman for NHCH, said the man was seen in the emergency room and discharged. He was not admitted. West Hawaii Today has not yet been able to identify or track him down.
Moller, who organized the rescue effort from the ground, said the coordinated effort between the county, U.S. Army Fire Department at PTA and the Black Hawk medevac crew went off without a hitch, repeating comments he said the Black Hawk pilot made shortly after the incident ended.
“He said it seemed yesterday like they’ve been doing it for years,” said Moller. … “It was kind of the model of how it should go down.”
In a prepared statement, Borce also commended the actions of all agencies involved.
“This is another great effort by Hawaii County and PTA First Responders,” said Borce. “We are thankful we got the call early enough to find this gentleman before dark set in.”
The area from which the man was extricated was listed by the Hawaii Fire Department as land belonging to the state. Maps indicate it is part of the Maunakea Forest Reserve, which falls under the auspices of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The department was unable to provide a statement regarding the incident, and for clarification regarding access to the reserve during the ongoing closure of the Maunakea Access Road amid the TMT protest.