Smith: Scooby Doo, Where are you?
Guest Columnist, Mountain Rescue
Common sense rules of survival for children:
1) Stay calm, don’t panic
2) Stay together
3) Stay in one place, preferably along a trail or in a visible spot
4) Don’t run from strangers unless endangered
5) Yell loudly to anyone that may be in the area
6) Listen for others, and respond to them
7) Keep warm, cover your head, use ground cover, tree boughs or any additional clothing; but stay visible
8) Put on something bright
9) Do not lie on the ground... it’s cold
10) Do not eat anything you are not sure of
11) Do not go into caves, as they may be wildlife habitat
12) Know how to deal with wildlife encounters
13) Stay away from fast-moving water
Early evening May 28, 2005 Grand County Search and Rescue was dispatched after a 911 call to the Grand County Sheriffs dispatch center. The incident involved an 11 year old autistic girl from Denver who was reported missing by her parents.
The story began in the family campsite 15 miles northwest of Kremmling. According to the girl’s parents, the mother was cooking dinner on a Coleman stove set up on a picnic table. At some point during the dinner preparation, the mother turned around to find her little girl gone. As she frantically called out her name, the rest of the family returned from fishing in the reservoir. A fruitless search was followed by a desperate call to 911.
As luck would have it, the Yampa Colorado fire department was in the area, and offered their help in the search. Eventually, a total of 11 separate emergency services agencies took part in the all-night search. The first members of Grand County Search and Rescue arrived at the campsite just after nightfall and established Incident Command. The parents reported the girl had the intellectual level of a 4 year old with very limited verbal skills. Of note was the fact that she associated closely with several cartoon characters, most recently Scooby Doo. According to her parents, she liked to “make herself’ into the characters, and would respond to the fictitious names, not her own. Therefore the searchers decided to use the name “Scooby Doo” as they called out to the girl during the mission.
As the clock continued to tick deep into the night, more resources arrived to help in the search, totaling more than 60 members of search and rescue teams, EMS, sheriff’s offices, fire departments, and civilians camping in the area. Trained personnel from the entire northwestern region of Colorado were represented, along with several search dog teams. The calling cry, “Scooby Doo!” was repeated countless times throughout the night. The total search area comprised some 30 square miles.
The next morning, as additional searchers arrived to relieve some very exhausted people and dogs, a report came over the radio that the little girl was found! She was walking down a county road, looking cold and tired, approximately 5 miles from the campsite. It took another 30 minutes for the ATV team to return to camp with the girl, which brought tears of joy to the family, and cheers from the rescuers. All teams were radioed to return to mission base, and the search was formally ended.
Each mission requires a debrief of all professionals involved, and the search for “Scooby Doo” was no different. The most remarkable discovery about this search was that this little girl walked an estimated eight miles overnight in the Colorado high country, alone and without any protective clothing or gear. She was wearing shorts, a hooded sweatshirt and tennis shoes. She was only slightly injured by limited frostbite on her fingertips.
The most important lesson learned concerns how children are trained by their parents to avoid strangers. It was discovered that the girl did hear searchers calling out to her throughout the night, but had been taught to run from strangers. She did an excellent job of hiding, sometimes within a few hundred feet of rescuers. She then continued to move away from those working so hard to find her.
Parents who bring their children on camping trips in the mountains should always talk to their kids about what to do if they are separated from the family. Grand County Search and Rescue recommends giving kids a password that they will recognize. If they become lost or separated, they should know to respond if someone calls them by name, and then ask for the password from rescue personnel. To everyone’s relief; this story had a happy ending. The possibility of finding a severely injured or deceased 11 year old was on the minds of all involved, despite an overriding optimism that kept all searchers motivated throughout the night. It is gut-wrenching to search for a missing child, but with the right tools, all children have an excellent chance of survival and discovery if ever lost alone in the mountains.
Tim Smith is in his 15th year as a volunteer for GCSAR and is one of our Incident Commanders.
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