A 72-year-old woman and her dog survived in the Gila County wilderness for nine days before being rescued by the Arizona Department of Public Safety on Saturday.
Ann Rodgers and her dog survived by drinking creek water and eating berries and plants, according to reports by law-enforcement officials. A week-long multi-agency search ended with a helicopter crew rounding a bend in a canyon to find her waving at them from below.
Rodgers had done her best to guide searchers: She had spelled out “HELP” in sticks and rocks on a canyon floor, hoping to gain attention.
She was suffering from exposure but in fair condition when she was spotted by a DPS Air Rescue Unit.
Lost, with no gas and no cellphone reception
Rodgers and her dog set out on March 31 on a trip to Phoenix from Tucson, according to the DPS.
Although she was planning to arrive in Phoenix to celebrate her birthday, which was on April 4, Rodgers told a White Mountain Apache Tribe Game and Fish officer that she was heading toward Show Low when she ran out of gas.
Rodgers saw an opportunity to refuel at a Cibecue exit, but she became lost and began her nine-day ordeal, according to Johnny Holmes, a detective with the tribal game and fish agency.
Rodgers climbed several ridgelines to try to find cellphone service to contact someone for help but was unable to establish any working connection.
For the next week and a half, Rodgers and her dog were stranded on a distant stretch of backcountry road.
“HELP” in sticks and stones
Her vehicle was found April 3, DPS officials said. The agency’s Ranger helicopters were sent out for an aerial search of the area but were not able to find Rodgers.
Holmes said that he and other tribal officers and searchers from several other law enforcement agencies, including the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and Gila County Search, participated in the hunt.
Holmes said that they began looking for Rodgers on April 4 and did not stop “pounding around the ground” until they found her. The turn of events was a shock to her family: Holmes said that when officers attempted to contact Rodgers’ family members early last week, they did not realize she had gone missing.
On Saturday, a White Mountain Apache Tribe Game and Fish officer spotted Rodgers’ dog walking out of the Canyon Creek area as searchers were heading for higher ground for a better vantage point.
A DPS Ranger crew from Flagstaff began another aerial search. This time, the crew saw the word “HELP” spelled out in sticks and stones across the canyon floor, DPS said. A handwritten message was found underneath one of the rocks. The note, dated April 3, was written by Rodgers, saying that she was out of food and water and was heading down the canyon.
The helicopter continued searching, and farther down the canyon, the crew saw a shelter that seemed to have been abandoned by Rodgers.
Shortly after that, the craft rounded a bend in the canyon and the crew saw Rodgers waving to the helicopter as she stood next to a signal fire.
Rodgers was able to board the helicopter with little assistance. She was treated and later released from a Payson hospital Saturday night, according to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
Holmes said Rodgers told a White Mountain Apache Tribe Game and Fish officer officer that she had survived off berries, plants and clean water from a nearby creek.
She was found about 40 miles from Highway 60, vulnerable to wildlife and weekend storms, Holmes said.
He said that Rodgers’ ability to help rescuers track her by leaving distress signals, the “HELP” sign and the note, played a major role in her rescue.
“If she hadn’t done her part, we might still be out there looking for her,” Holmes said. “She partook in her own rescue by giving our guys clues to find and follow where she was.”
Survival expert: A stunning set of events
Cody Lundin, a professional survival instructor out of Prescott, said that Rodgers’ ability to have survived nine days in the wild was “very rare, statistically abnormal and freakish.”
Lundin explained that when people are lost in the wilderness, they normally are found within three days or less. Even trained survivalists are at risk when they face conditions similar to those that Rodgers faced, he said.
While the most important thing is that she is still alive, a better avenue for survival may have been for Rodgers to have stayed in her vehicle, which was more visible and thus easier for authorities to find.
The biggest threat Rodgers could have faced would have been hypothermia from the cold weather and storms.
“If it had been a different season, she would not have lived,” Lundin said. “Arizona can be a brutal state to stay alive in because we have mountains and deserts and everything in between.”
Lundin said that with any trip, it is crucial that you inform others about your travel plans in case you get lost.
The Rev. Lee Milligan, pastor of Rodgers’ church, Casas Adobes Congregational UCC in Tucson, said that he and the church were relieved to hear she was found and rescued.
“We were praying that she was found and we are happy that she was,” Milligan said.
Originally posted at www.ascentral.com