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Out of the wilderness: Tech students, volunteers backbone of Socorro Search and Rescue

Members of Socorro Search and Rescue braved snow and winds on March 13 to help rescue a hiker in the White Mountain Wilderness south of Carrizozo. (Courtesy of Socorro Search And Rescue)

SOCORRO – In March, a 911 call came in from a hiker stranded in the White Mountain wilderness south of Carrizozo. The weather had turned cold and snowy, and the hiker had gotten turned around. He was able to give just enough information on the 911 call to give rescuers an idea where to start looking.

bright spotA team from Socorro Search and Rescue was assembled and headed out.

Socorro Search and Rescue is a volunteer organization whose members consist primarily of New Mexico Tech students and several community volunteers. The local group acts as a member team of the New Mexico Search and Rescue Council and provides primary search and rescue capabilities to Socorro County, as well as back-up support for the entire state.

Evelyn Byrd, a biomedical science major at Tech, was part of the Socorro Search and Rescue team assembled to find the missing hiker in Lincoln County.

“It was probably the most intense search I’ve been on, because of the weather. We were out in the mountains. It was snowy. The winds were blowing 80-plus mph. It was really terrible out,” Byrd said. “We were looking for a guy who got lost hiking the day before and had spent the night out there. We knew he wasn’t wearing proper clothing for the weather. He was wearing just jeans and a hoodie.”

She said they had a pretty good idea of where to look, “but it was still pretty difficult to even get out there because of the weather and terrain. It was pretty steep. I guess there were trails, but you really couldn’t see them because of the snow.”

Nick Tenorio, Socorro native and U.S. Coast Guard retiree, served as operations section chief working with the incident commander.

The teams that went out ended up just strictly navigating-based GPS, Byrd said.

“The hiker did have a cellphone, which is why we had a pretty good idea of where he was. That morning, he managed to get phone service and get off a 911 call,” Byrd said.

It was just enough to give the searchers an idea of his location.

“It was below freezing and the wind chill brought the temperatures down a whole bunch for much of the mission,” Byrd said. “We got on the trail at around 9:45 a.m. and were able to find him at around 3:30 to 4 p.m. That was just to get around to where he was.”

When the team found him, “he was very cold, not feeling so great,” she said.

“Being from the area, he said he knew the area pretty well, but got totally turned around because of the storm the previous night.”

“In this case, we’re very glad it all turned out OK, we were able to find him and get him out of there,” Byrd said. “No major injuries.”

The New Mexico Tech search and rescue student club was formed in 1971.

“I think we’re the only group like this in the state,” she said. “Most other search and rescue groups are made up of just community volunteers.”

Club President Zoe Havlena says Socorro Search and Rescue operates both as a student club under the Student Association of New Mexico Tech and as a member of the New Mexico Search and Rescue Council under the direct authority of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and the New Mexico State Police.

“Training is through New Mexico Search and Rescue, taught by the resource officer, Bob Rogers, who is actually the only paid member on the state level,” she said.

When someone gets lost or missing, members could be called at any time, day or night.

“It can be hard to juggle school with being called out on a search or rescue, but most of my professors are understanding,” Havlena said. “Whenever someone gets lost we get called or get a text message and whoever’s available will respond to it.”

According to the SSAR website, basic membership requirements can be summarized into three items:

• You must have the basic personal equipment to survive overnight in the wilderness.

• You must have training in the basic skills involved in search and rescue. (The team will provide these skills.)

• You must be willing to sacrifice some time, money and energy for training, practice, and actual searches.

More information can be found at socorrosar.org, or the group’s Facebook page, Socorro Search and Rescue Team.

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