In finding those five stranded snowmobilers in rugged northeastern Weber County last week, KTVX-Channel 4 pulled off another coup in a rescue story. It rivaled its clean beat in getting the only tape of the rescue of little Joshua Dennis from an abandoned mine in Tooele County in October 1989.
Channel 4 really didn't get the kind of credit on the snowmobiler story it should have won from its kindred but rival news media.The Tribune mentioned almost casually that a "television helicopter" had found the people, who had been lost for two days, without identifying the station. That was petty, particularly since the paper seemed of late to have abandoned a traditional reluctance to recognize in its news pages that radio and television even exist.
- WHAT A PITY. The story of the rescue was certainly not only less complete but far less dramatic without mention of how the KTVX people went after the lost group.
The Deseret News gave credit to KTVX but did not mention the reporter, Rod Jackson, or cameraman, John Waikart, who got exclusive pictures of the people being rescued on site.
Note also an irony here. The lost party was found by a helicopter leased by the only news station in town that never owned its own.
KTVX gave the story two minutes and 45 seconds on its 5:30 news on the day of the rescue, a huge play for any piece. It followed on 10 p.m. news with a package that featured the survival techniques the five had used.
In getting the story the station had some luck but was enterprising enough to take advantage of it. Early Tuesday morning it got a phone call from Mark Henderson, owner of Classic Helicopters, which has three choppers for hire out of the Salt Lake airport. Henderson had been snowmobiling between Hardware Ranch and Monte Cristo recreation area a couple of weeks before, felt he knew where the likely trouble areas were, and had a hunch where the snowmobilers might be.
So he was confident enough to make an offer. If the chopper failed to find the group, he would waive his usual $425-an-hour costs. KTVX snapped up the deal. KUTV-Channel 2, which no longer has its own chopper, turned it down.
The six-passenger Bell helicopter piloted by Dan Rudert picked up Henderson in Ogden, where he lives, and headed northeast under a low ceiling.
When Henderson asked for clearance to go into the search area, the Weber County Sheriff's department at the Monte Cristo search headquarters suggested that Forrest Odekirk, a member of the sheriff's search and rescue team, go along.
- THE COPTER with the five men aboard searched three valleys for about 25 minutes before Odekirk spotted the fire from the snowmobilers' camp. The chopper made several passes over the site and then set down on a ridge about 100 yards from the party. They found a wan and exhausted group, chilled, out of water and nearly out of food, and too weak to go for distant firewood. Most still wore their riding helmets.
The helicopter had been equipped that morning with snow pads on the landing skids, fortunate because when the group deplaned they sank thigh-deep into the four feet of snow. "The snowmobilers were smart to stay put; they would have never made it out on foot through that snow," Henderson says.
I liked Jackson's recounting of his feelings in the rescue. "While we were flying I was thinking that I hoped we were the ones who found the group because it would be a great story. But when we got there the story suddenly took a back seat. The important thing was to get the people out.
"I was at the Wilberg mine and had to report that they were going to seal the mine and leave the miners in there. Now it was such a good feeling to see a hunch pay off in a successful rescue - everything else was secondary.
- "I NEVER THOUGHT for a minute we weren't going to find them alive. We knew they had the survival skills."
Jackson and Waikart itched to get the story back but still offered to remain at the site so that the chopper would have room to ferry out the snowmobilers.
Their copter was lifting off when KSL's Chopper 5 arrived on the scene, just in time to miss the rescue. KSL got pictures of Jackson and Waikart on the ground and fly-by shots of the rescue helicopter heading back to Monte Cristo.
Jackson and Waikart were picked up about half an hour later and got back to the office early in the afternoon. They put together the news packages in time for the regional newsfeed, Newsone, which goes to other ABC stations by satellite at 4 o'clock.
Because he was part of the story, Jackson gave an interview to the Deseret News. The Associated Press listened to the audio from the station's raw tape for its stories.
The 5:30 news package included the preparations for the search by 60 snowmobilers at Monte Cristo early Tuesday morning, the sheriff's briefing, shots of the two lost men, Ray McNeely and Don Donehoo, wading through the snow to meet the helicopter rescue team, pictures of the camp and of the wind breaks the stranded group made of twine, twigs and snow, the copter taking off, and the reunion of the five snowmobilers with their families at Monte Cristo.
Jackson credits a team effort for all of this, including reporter Debbie Dujanovic and photographer Scott McKane, who spent a freezing Monday night at the station's satellite truck at Monte Cristo.