Clark Profitt lay twisted and bleeding on a narrow canyon ledge, the result of a hiking accident in Utah’s beautiful Zion National Park. It was September 2nd, and an air rescue would be the only way to save him. While Clark’s wife stayed with him, others in their hiking party rushed through the rugged terrain to get help.
Conditions could not have been much worse. The air was heavy with heat. Night was approaching, and a torrential thunderstorm was coming with it. All of these elements combined to present a worst-case scenario to an Air Force helicopter rescue team. It was possible that no pilot would be able to overcome these obstacles to get to the injured man.
However, as soon as rangers at Zion National Park got word of the incident, they jumped into action. They established a communications center, where Head Ranger Cindy Purcell monitored all the developing components of the operation. Rangers were dispatched to the scene. They had to climb and rappel to reach it; it would take hours. They also called three helicopter teams, all of whom immediately started accessing their ability to perform the perilous mission.
For various reasons, responsibility fell to the Air Force’s 58th and 66th Rescue Squadrons from Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. These men are trained to remove injured military personnel from harm’s way. Their preparation includes working out strategies for many scenarios. Of course no one can prepare for every eventuality, but their training gives them the tools to venture where others would be helpless. They are an example of the very best the Air Force has to offer. Therefore, when circumstances are extreme, they may be called upon to help with local civilian rescues. According to their news site, they perform about five or six a year.
Even this crack team was concerned about the hazards involved in this particular job. First of all, they had never been in this particular canyon. It is narrow, offering barely enough space for a helicopter to get in and out safely. And that’s on a good day. They were looking at an approaching storm, total darkness, and more. The air was extremely warm, making it difficult for them to generate the lift they needed to hold the aircraft steady while the injured man was prepared and hauled aboard, then fly it safely out. Later, in a meeting with the hikers, the rescuers confided that even for them this had been a terrifying situation and the most difficult rescue of their career thus far.
Here it becomes glaringly apparent that unseen hands were guiding everything that happened that day. First of all, Chris Miller, a member of the hiking party, reported feeling strongly that he needed to leave to get help immediately after his friend had fallen. He later learned that if he had gotten word to the rangers any later than he did, all teams involved were fairly certain that they would not have been able to beat the storm, and Clark and his wife Margaret would have been left to the elements. Clark most likely would not have survived, and Margaret would have been in extreme peril.
The Nellis squadrons were not entirely intact when the call came in. One member had been on leave in Salt Lake City when he got word of the situation. He contacted the team and said he couldn’t make it, as he was on the road driving back toward Las Vegas. They asked where he was, and found that he was in the perfect position to report to the command center at Zion, to help direct the rescue from the ground. There he would be able to relay critical information about the developing weather—vital facts that they would not have had access to otherwise.
Other members of the squads studied the canyon walls through nign=ht vision goggles, trying to devise the best approach for affecting the rescue. They had decided that they would bring out both Clark and Margaret. This meant that they would need to drop off two of their crew members at the command station and dump some fuel to help them generate the lift they would need in the heat and stillness that belied the approaching storm.
According to a report by Chris Miller, “Once they were down there, pilot Ben Mackey was not sure they could get close enough [to insert their people on the ledge where Clark and Margaret were] until the gunner Kevin DaRosa saw a little opening they could carefully back the helicopter into, which allowed them to drop the hoist all the way down to where Clark was and still barely miss the canyon wall. Without that they would not have been able to get Clark out before the storm and they would have had to rig up a pulley system to lift him out, which would have taken hours that frankly they did not have.”
Ryan Manjuck and Dan Farfan were the parajumpers who descended to the scene. Farfan later said that he took off his headphones as he prepared to go because (again quoting Chris Miller’s report) “all the talk about avoiding the wall was a little much for him, so he decided to focus on this jump…and stopped looking up at the wall and the blades.”
Margaret and Clark had no idea how stressful this operation was for their rescuers at the time; they presented faces of absolute calm and control. They administered medication to Clark and got him strapped into the gurney for the ride up. They had Margaret put on her rappelling harness, then secured her to Manjuck’s rigging to bring her out as well.
Meanwhile, the helicopter had pulled up away from the canyon wall to wait while the men on the ground prepared for the lift. Finally they maneuvered the craft back into its narrow slot to finish the job. “We had to rush Farfan with the hoist because there was a torrential downpour headed toward us during our second hover,” reported Captain Michael Bush of the 66th Rescue Squadron.
Another element of the story came out in the reunion meeting between the rescuers and the hiking team ten days after the event. It is a common rule that helicopters are not supposed to fly when there is the threat of lightning strikes. Yet these brave souls, knowing that a life depended upon their actions, flew directly through a lightning storm to reach St. George, Utah. There they worked to stabilize the patient, refueled, and waited out the tempest before delivering their cargo to a hospital in Las Vegas.
“They truly did work with the hand of God,” Miller commented. “They were all watched over that night.”
In the calm of that meeting at the hospital ten days later, the squadrons and the hikers exchanged tokens of appreciation. Margaret Proffitt read a letter that she had composed. It said, in part: “As I learn more about the details of the mission, I’m further convinced that you truly are Guardian Angels. You gave my family something so precious that night—you gave Clark back a future that was hanging in the balance, you gave me back a husband that I can’t live without and you gave three little boys back a father who is not only much needed but much adored as well.”
“I know your training and experience has prepared you to go into enemy territory and recover fallen soldiers, bringing them home no matter how dangerous the trip. I’m so grateful that you were willing to use that training to bring a good man back home and reunite him with his family. As soon as Clark fell, we found ourselves in ‘enemy territory’ so to speak, racing against both time and the elements to save his life. Clark and I experienced our own personal hell that horrific night. Thank you for rescuing us from it and giving us a second chance. Thank you for giving us a happy ending.”
The AF rescuers and heroic angels were Dave Farfan, Medic; Ryan Manjuck, Element Leader; Brian Silva, Team Leader; Daniel Catino, Team Commander; Kevin DaRosa, Aerial Gunner; Chris Cholet, Flight Engineer; Mike Bush, Co-Pilot; Ben Mackey, Pilot. To them, the unnamed rangers, the hikers are eternally grateful.
This is the follow-up story from Muslims and Mormons Pray for a Common Cause.