By Frank D. Vincent
Jimmy’s cough was getting worse. Chad could hear the wetness in his lungs, without using his stethoscope. Chad moved away from the 8 year old and covered him again with the bit of rough burlap that had made up the bag of potatoes.
"The potatoes… You know Beth; if it weren’t for those we’d all be dead by now." Chad mused.
He turned to his flight nurse, Beth and saw a faint smile play quickly over her face.
"You’re right Chad, but what good does it to think on that?"
Beth stirred the fire in the chimney with an old broken bit of a rusted shovel. The fire had already cleansed the shovel of most of the rust that had accumulated on it for a span of time unknown. She seemed fascinate by the fire as it played over the surface of the shovel and she kept turning it over, first one way and then another.
"If we think about ‘What if’s’ and ‘Why didn’t we..’ we’ll do no good for figuring out how to get out of this alive." She continued, "We could pick to death on why here, why of all places, this cabin. But it serves no good purpose."
Chad moved over to her and sat down, hugging his knees with his arms.
"Maybe you’re right Beth," Chad said softly. "But we need to examine how we plan on making it out of here with him deteriorating as quickly as he is."
He motioned to the sleeping lump of the boy, "You know just as certain as I do that moving him in this condition, without an escape route, without knowing where to go… well…" he trailed off. "That will certainly kill him and we both know it."
Beth hung her head a little and they both stared into the fire. Time ticked slowly passed, as the flames licked first the underside of the broken shovel blade and then the top, as Beth rotated it in her hand.
Chad’s head snapped up as Jimmy began to cough loudly. He moved to the little boy to re-access his vital signs. He glanced back to Beth as he felt for Jimmy’s pulse. She lay on her right side, with her legs drawn up to her chest, next to the barely existent coals in the worn out fireplace. Chad could hear the wind whistling through the gaps and cracks in the old cabin walls. The temperature inside had dropped so much that his breath made frosty plumes of warm air as he breathed out. Frost covered the inside of the cabin’s two windows to the outside world. Bitter cold wasn’t the word for it, he thought to himself. This is a frozen coffin and we’re going to die here if I can’t find a way out.
It had been 5 days. 120 hours since the helicopter had crashed. He and his flight nurse had flown up from Harborview Medical Center to the parking lot at Sunrise, the highest point reachable by vehicle at Mount Rainier National Park. They had been called by the U.S Park Service to airlift a little boy, injured in a fall. Apparently, the boy’s father had been killed and the boy seriously wounded when they tumbled down from a steep ridge while hiking the Burroughs Mountain Trail. The trail was not historically dangerous, but melt out of the 10-20 feet of snow wouldn’t begin until June, another 3 months away. The boy and his father were snowshoeing and had stopped to rest when they both fell. The boy’s father struck his head on an outcropping of rock, and was killed instantly. The boy also struck the same rocks and has suffered multiple rib fractures and a broken foot. Typically the Army would have sent a Rescue helicopter to assist with the rescue and body recovery operation, but the Army couldn’t provide a Unit for several hours as maintenance was being performed on their primary chopper. Next up would have been the Coast Guard, but thanks to a group of drunken youth in the sound, they were already executing a rescue.
So Chad got the call. He had quickly agreed, provided the boy could be brought to the helicopter at the sunrise parking lot. Though covered in snow, the landing area was significantly more accommodating than any other part of the landscape. They had landed and waited 2 additional hours for the boy to be brought to them. Due to his injuries, the rescue team had used a Stokes Basket to drag him over 7 miles of difficult terrain, on foot. Chad had been worried about the forecast for an approaching storm and was hopeful that they could get airborne and on their way before the storm reached them and made their flight home dangerous. He hadn’t counted on waiting for two additional hours. The weather worsened during their wait and by the time the rescue team arrived with the boy, a moderate snow was falling. The boy was stable enough for the flight, but he needed to get to Harborview as quickly as possible, to limit any permanent or nerve damage. If only Chad had been able to lift off 10 minutes earlier, they might have made it. As it was, they were now stranded somewhere to the Northeast of Mt. Rainier. In a rundown cabin that had been abandoned for years and years. They were lucky to be alive, for sure. They were even luckier to have found this place and even luckier to have it be habitable and with a frozen bag of potatoes in the small dugout ice chest the cabin’s owner had dug.
Chad was satisfied with Jimmy's vitals, but knew that time was running out for all of them. There was no more wood to burn, they had torn apart the table, chairs and meager cot. Beth had helped him strip down anything that would burn and now they had nothing else but their clothing.The tough little potatoes had only lasted them through day 4. Chad's stomach growled with hunger as he realized for the first time, that he hadn't eaten anything in over 24 hours. He had manually activated the emergency beacon in the helicopter as soon as he knew they were going down. But it had snowed for nearly three days straight and Chad wasn't sure that the beacon was meant to last in sub-zero temperatures for this long.
Sleep finally took him a short time later.
He woke up to lights all around him and could barely make out the figures of people moving back and forth, all around him. They were saved! He saw two figures huddled over Jimmy attending to him, with Beth right next to him. Then the utter exaustion caught up with him and he slipt into unconsciousness. The rest was a blur. He didn't remember the helicopter ride or the hospital admittance, but here he was, bathed in luxuriant warmth, in a hospital tub. He reveled in the sheer warmth squeezing his toes and then relaxing them, over and over again as he enjoyed the heat. He slowly nodded off with a smile on his face.
They were found a week later by a rescue team. The heavy snow had hampered every effort to reach the crash site. Jimmy and Beth were found inside the cabin, Jimmy nestled in Beth's arms. she provided what little comfort she could in their final hours. Chad's clothes were found spread thoughout the cabin and his body found almost 1/4 mile away, naked in the snow, with a smile on his face.