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Tom Mayo was the nurse on a Life Link III crew out of Hibbing that was involved in a search and rescue operation for six men in the Isabella area late Wednesday night and Thursday morning. (Photo courtesy of Life Link III)

Cell phones light the way to forest rescue

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Six men who were lost in a swampy Lake County forest at night waved their cell phones in the air. To the three-person helicopter crew wearing night-vision goggles, it looked liked flashlights glowing in the dark.

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The high-tech operation produced a happy ending for the members of a tree-planting crew who lost their way on Wednesday.

In a news release, Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said the men were rescued at 1:44 a.m. Thursday, and other than being cold were in good condition. He identified the men as Moises Martinez, 28; Isau Lopez, 23; Efrain Lopez, 20; Julian Vasquez, 44; Miguel Gomez, 39; and Sergio Carrillo, 27.

It was the second nighttime rescue in Lake County this week. About 1:20 a.m. Monday, a Lake County sheriff's deputy found Warren Symons and Allen Thorngren, both 86 and from Silver Bay, who were trying to reach the town of Finland on foot after the pickup truck Thorngren was driving became stuck on a logging road.

In the latest rescue, Johnson said the initial call at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday was for one lost person off Old Tomahawk Road, which is near the town of Isabella about 50 miles north of Two Harbors.

The individual had become separated from a group of people who were planting trees, but was able to reconnect with them. By that time, however, all six had lost their way.

Lake County Search and Rescue squads from Two Harbors, Silver Bay and Finland began a search and later turned to Life Link for help with the nighttime search.

The Hibbing-based Life Link III crew got the call at 11:40 p.m. from the Lake County Sheriff's Office, Life Link spokeswoman Kristin Brand said.

Tom Mayo, 40, the nurse on the three-person crew, said that he, the pilot and paramedic were in the air in a Bell 470 helicopter by 1 a.m. He said it took about a half-hour to reach the GPS coordinates the Sheriff's Office had given them. An incident command center was set up on the ground.

"They gave us some direction saying that they're north and east of us, and so we went in that direction," Mayo said. "And within two minutes we could see their cell phones just like they were holding up flashlights."

Seeing or hearing the helicopter coming, the hikers held up the cell phones as if they were at a rock concert. The crew could spot them, Mayo said, because all three were wearing night-vision goggles.

The helicopter crew flew over the hikers to get GPS coordinates, radioed the location to rescuers on the ground and helped guide them on the best course. The crew also was in cell-phone contact with the hikers, Mayo said, but none of them spoke English.

They had wandered into formidable territory, Mayo said.

"The terrain was hilly, very wooded, and there was swamp everywhere," he said. "It looked like they were kind of surrounded by a swamp and they were up real high -- you could actually see that they were on bare rock."

The helicopter stayed until the rescuers were within voice contact of the hikers, Mayo said.

Life Link equips all of its crew members with the military-grade goggles, which cost about $10,000 apiece, Brand said. "It's not a requirement on all aircraft that operate for air medical transport, but we have added them as that added safety component, and they use them on nighttime transfers."

The goggles made all the difference, Mayo said.

"There's most likely not a chance that we could have seen them (without the goggles)," he said. "The night vision goggles amplify the ambient light to an extent that when it's a real moonlit night, like last night, it's like seeing in the daytime. And with any little bit of light like that, a cigarette lighter even, or a cell phone like that, it glows just like a flashlight."

Minneapolis-based Life Link III is a nonprofit owned by a consortium of nine health-care organizations including both hospitals in Duluth, Brand said. Its Hibbing base, staffed around the clock, was opened in November 2009.

Who pays for the helicopter crew's role in the rescue?

"Money is never a concern in an emergency situation for us," Mayo said. "We never ask that question. We just go out and do it, and people will figure that out later."

Mayo said the crew members were eager to help.

"It was a great opportunity for us to get out and do something a little different to help out the public, people who are lost and in need," he said. "And here we are just waiting to do a medical transport, and we get to do a search and rescue. It was very exciting for us."

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