Rescue Journal "That Others May Live"

David is a former Search and Rescue (SAR) Instructor and has participated in hundreds of missions to include, air operations, body recovery, search, cave rescue, mine rescue, vehicle extrication, vertical rescue, trench rescue, and fire support. Some of his key deployments include Haiti, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Alabama, Thailand, Burma and Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

David is a former Instructor for Dive Rescue International (DRI) Public Safety SCUBA Instructor (PSSI). He has worked with federal dive teams and has also instructed foreign Special Operations Helicopter pilots in water egress and operations. He served as the Vice President of the Rapid City Dive Team and as an operational diver performed many body recoveries. It was in the ice covered and fast water environments where many of David's critical experiences were forged. He has recovered bodies under the ice, in deep water and in black water (zero visibility). He has recovered people under the water and ice from airplane crashes, automobiles, recreational vehicles and even animals.

Search and Rescue (SAR) Team 

Joining the Team

During my last assignment in the Air Force as I was “flying a desk” I needed something to keep the blood flowing.  I found the local Search and Rescue (SAR) team through a co-worker and never looked back.  This team covered a very large county and included the Mount Rushmore National Monument.  It was well funded and trained as hard as any other elite unit I personally worked with.

The focus of our team included Rescue or Recovery of victims in everything from traditional seach to vertical rescue (falling off a cliff) to vehicle extrication (cutting someone out of a car). We were funded well and had some incredible talent on our team. 

It took about a year to qualify for the team which included getting certified as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).  The standard training (outside of other certifications) was every Tuesday night and many Saturdays.  We ran calls constantly and averaged 100-200 calls a year.  These calls are nearly always high speed trauma.  This means that the mechanism of injury has something to do with being trapped, lost, severely injured in a remote location or of course needing the assistance of some kind of technical rescue.  The training requirements for this type of specialty rescue are extreme.  Constantly we trained for the scope of our mission.  

I served on the team for about 6 years and answered hundreds of high speed trauma 911 calls.

Below is a brief list of some of the areas of responsibility that our team had.

My First RESCUE Fatality

Why do people always slow down to get a good look and the accident only to find that they really do not want to look anymore once they see it?

On one of my very first 911 calls as a newly qualified SAR member, I recall having to extricate two dead bodies from a car that was piled up on a remote bridge off highway 90 in South Dakota early in the dark morning hours. 

As we got on scene there were three new members including myself.  The team leader said “Burnell, get the bodies out of the car and bag them”.  I remember standing by one of the extricated doors looking at the dead guy.  I did not know what to do or where to grab him.  I was in a state of shock.  I had seen dead people before, but was never asked to touch one.  This made the experience very personal.

From this I learned that there is a distinct difference between hearing, seeing, smelling, causing and touching death.  To have to connect physically with it is a whole new experience that will forever change the participant.  There is something permanent when you have to move and manipulate a dead body.  It is as if you feel your own mortality and begin to realize “but for the grace of God there go I”.

I eventually grabbed him by the shorts and pulled him out with the help of another team member.  As we moved him you could feel and hear the crunching of his chest cavity as the bones would grind together in friction. 

Once we got them both on the gurneys the coroner stuck a very long needle in the eye of one of the victims.  From that needle he extracted fluid from the eye.  This was to get a blood sample for alcohol content.  One of the new team members quit that day and eventually became a dog handler narrowing her responsibilities to less violent activities.  I don’t fault her.  It was very gross.  The whole process was ugly.  I felt like I needed to wash my soul after this call.  Over the next several years death would become more of a part of the job and less a shock to the system.  It never became trivial to me, but it did become expected.  Since we were responsible for not only traditional SAR duties, but also vehicle extrication, fatalities and gross injuries became a common occurrence.

This is an important phase that I went through as it crystallized for me the permanence of death and how important it is through education to prevent it where ever possible and bring everyone home.

Often after these calls, I would often call home and let my wife know I was safe and on my way back.  When the calls happened as they often did late at night or early in the morning, I would go into my children’s rooms when I got home and hug them lightly.  Then I would curl up on the couch and try to remove some of the visuals from my mind until I felt I could go to bed.

No matter how much training you have or how many high speed trauma calls you have been on, there is nothing normal about handling dismembered or broken bodies, dead or alive.  Over time however you learn how to make friends with the experiences and move on as best I could.

Metal coffins and a trailor fire

There was a fire in a small community where the local volunteer fire department extinguished the flames.  As part of our regional SAR role we brought our cascade system to refill the air tanks worn by the fire fighters.  While on scene the assistant team leader asked me if I would bag the two young bodies still exposed in the burned out smoldering trailer on this chilly winter day.  We would do this out of respect for the local firefighters since they knew the family personally.  Knowing this I said “sure”.  As we made our way into the trailer I found a young boy about 2 year’s old half eaten by the fire.  His face was burned off and I could see into his chest cavity.  We began to lift him into a metal coffin as he was still very hot.  As I lifted him into the coffin it was all I could do to keep moving my arms and finish the task.  

After we got the young boy in the metal coffin we started looking for the six month old baby girl that was known to be somewhere in the trailer.  After searching for a few minutes I found a crib that was burned and collapsed.  As I pulled the crib off of the little girl I could see that she was very intact and looked very peaceful.  She had a strange peace about her, unlike the boy we had just recovered.  It was clear that the smoke had killed her well before the heat got to her.  I picked her up with both hands and placed her in a new metal coffin.  Then I began to recover other elements of the bodies to make sure we could get as much of the human remains to rest out of respect for the family and these two children.  I remember wanting to get her all in the coffin so she could be buried properly.  I had such a focus on this that one of the team members had to call me off the task as I was searching with such focus and detail.

At the time of this call I had a little boy and little girl around the same ages.  I kept visualizing them in these horrible circumstances.  I felt vulnerable and weak in my heart.  At the time I thought I was “good to go” but would later find that this call had a negative effect on me personally.  

It was a day or so after the fire and I was in the orderly room of my Air Force unit.  As I walked down the hallway I greeted a young couple sporting one of those carry cradles.  I looked inside the cradle and smiled at the six month old baby.  Immediately I saw the charred remains of the baby girl I had put in the metal coffin the day or so before.  Later that day I called on of the paramedics and told him what had happened.  He suggested I meet him for what is called a critical incident stress debrief.  This I did.  As we met he asked me specific questions about the call and what the hardest parts were.  A few tears were shed and I never again had that type of flashback about that specific call.  There are some winter days and smells that do trigger the memories, but they are few and far between.  

For the most part I am at peace with this experience and realize the service performed that day while not life threatening to me, was certainly an emotional rollercoaster for a while.  Preventing the local folks from experiencing these awful details was and is to this day a blessing to all.

Lessons learned:  This was a hard experience.  Other than hugging my kids and feeling at times very insecure, the reconciliation of life and death is not ours but Gods.  The ultimate lesson learned on this call was that, we may never forget the hardships we encounter completely, but we can at the end of the day make friends with them and move on.  We can live each day realizing that we are all on borrowed time.  Our children will only be small for so long and then one day they too will be gone.  Hug them now… don’t wait.  Make it your priority to love them, teach them and cuddle them while they will let you and while they are in your presence.

Falling 300 feet of "Falling Rock"

The call came for a man who had fallen from a 350 foot cliff and bounced a couple of times until he hit the bottom.  He was reported by the ambulance to be alive.  When we got on scene I volunteered to go to the bottom of the cliff with some other team members and package him for the trip to the top.  He was in and out of consciousness the whole time.  We had him on oxygen and placed securely in a rescue basket.  Six of us would carry him to the bottom of the mountain where we would hook up rescue ropes to the basket and hand over hand get him to a level where we could then vertically retrieve him.

Some of this rescue would require a couple of us to hang a few hundred feet in the air off the rescue basket while he was pulled to safety.  Basically what happens is that the rescue basket is hooked into a line that is on what is called a five and one haul system.  A series of pulleys and ropes are used to lighten the load and allow people at the top to lift the victim and rescuers attached to the basket to safety.  The rescuers travel with the victim in order to monitor his condition and intervene if needed.

Hanging from a cliff with perhaps 100 pounds of gear with no influence over the ropes, systems or personnel doing the hauling can be a little unnerving.  Fortunately the folks on the top that have set this pulley system up are veteran rescuers and your friends. Trust is developed over long periods of time and though many incidents.  Complete trust is needed to be on the package side of the system with the victim.  Your life is literally hanging in the balance.

Unfortunately for the victim he died in route to the Emergency Room (ER) that day.  In the real world happy endings do not always come within the thirty minute drama as seen on television.  Gravity is real and plays havoc on the body when you make a bad decision and drink alcohol while walking the edge of a cliff.

The Search for Joyce

One evening we were dispatched to a place called the needles.  These are seven thousand foot peaks that rise above the black hills of South Dakota and make for a wonderful but at times challenging hike for locals and visitors alike.

On this evening a lady in her sixties name Joyce was up to the mountains with her family that was visiting from Chicago.  It was summer time and the trails were calling them to make a nine mile hike to the top of the needles.  Joyce wanted to go, but the family insisted she stay back because of the terrain and late hour.  This was about 4PM in the afternoon and instead of staying there at the car Joyce in her frustration decided to try and catch up to the already departed family.  This trail was more like a washed out creek bed than a real trail, and featured several crossing paths.  Joyce walked and walked with no luck in finding her family.  Hours went by and the family finally returned to the vehicle but Joyce was to be seen nowhere.  They scoured the area to try and find her.  After 9PM they called the local SAR team.  After the local team searched for a few hours they finally escalated to get our team involved as they needed the extra manpower and experience.  Time was getting critical.  Our pages went off at about midnight and we arrived on scene at about 1AM.

Our first task was to review the search areas that had already been covered.  We had a Point Last Known (PLK) which was the vehicle and would later end up covering again much of the terrain previously worked as there was no sign of Joyce.

While the SAR team searches for the lost soul, local Law Enforcement will examine every possible detail about abduction or foul play.  Nothing was ruled out, but the family insisted that Joyce was stubborn and most likely went up the trail on her own.

I was put in charge of a three person SAR team and we moved quickly through our assignment.  Once we returned to the command post I was asked if I wanted to catch a rest.  Eager to get back out we took another assignment.  I consulted with the incident commander and concluded that starting again from the Point Last Know would be a worth while effort.  

My team and I went to the vehicle and found a trail head.  We started up the trail and hiked for about a half hour or so with no sign from Joyce.  At one point we came to a fork in the trail and had to determine our path of travel - left or right.  I consulted with our team and one of the members named Carl suggested that we have a prayer to know which path to take.  Being a religious fellow myself, but somewhat independent I thought about it for a moment and said “Carl, why don’t you offer that one”.  We knelt upon the ground right there and Carl spoke in tones indicating her was very familiar with speaking to deity.  He asked Father in Heaven to “help us find Joyce and know which path to take”.  As is so often the case once we rose from our knees we still had to decide and take some action with our mortal limitations.  We decided to “choose the right”.  As we walked down the path on the right it was approaching 2AM.  Throughout the search we would call out “Joyce, Joyce” with no reply.  As we worked our way about 500 meters from where we had prayed we called out “Joyce, we are here to help you”, suddenly a faint voice called back and said “here I am”.  Immediately I called out to her to stay right where she was and that we would come to her.  Often when finding someone who has been alone and lost for a long period of time, they will run to their rescuers.  Sometimes they will fall and are injured only feet away from safety and rescue.  Joyce stayed put and waited for us to find her shivering uncontrollably.  She was in the early stagers of hypothermia and standing on the edge of a 500 foot cliff in pitch darkness.  We were just in time.

We gave her a coat to wear and started a fire to warm her up.  I brought hot chocolate with me and we got some fluids in her and prepared her for the journey home.  I fired up my radio and called back to command “2EM329 to base”, “we found Joyce, and she is conscious alert and breathing.”  You could hear the family scream in the background as dispatch answered “I copy Joyce is alive and well”, “Roger that dispatch”.

The command post wanted to send up a rescue basket to haul her out on but Joyce as determined as ever wanted to walk out on her own.  With me on one side and Carl on the other, Joyce made it down the mountain to the waiting arms of family members.  It was an emotional reunion for them and the tears flowed freely.

Before Joyce left she came up to each of us and hugged us one last time.  Then she made her way back to her family, to the hospital for a checkup and then back to Chicago.

During all the years, calls and traumas, there was never another one like Joyce.  That night we truly made a difference.  The divine intervention was in my humble opinion the key differentiator between this rescue and countless others where the endings were not so delightful.  Well done Carl.

Dive Rescue Team

Becoming a Public Safety SCUBA Instructor (PSSI)

After qualifying for the SAR team I had my eyes set on the Dive Rescue team.  I had always been a good swimmer and with the things I did in the military I was ready for that challenge.  You had to be a Police, Fire or SAR professional for a year to join.  After I joined the Dive Rescue Team I liked it so much I went on to become a Public Safety Scuba Instructor (PSSI).  It was under this role that many critical life experiences were gained.

The Dive Rescue Team is a separate 911 agency comprised of full-time police, Fire and volunteer SAR personnel.  The Dive Rescue mission is to respond to any water incident and rescue or recover the victims and bring them home.

I have always been very comfortable in the water.  As a young kid we went the beach often and were familiar with how to negotiate the ocean and its currents.  In later years I was formally trained as an excellent technical swimmer by an English Olympic coach.  Twice a week at a pound–fifty ($3.00 dollars) per lesson she would torture me in the water for a couple hours.  After years of informal ocean contact and many years of formal training… I was very formidable in any water environment and ready to become a PSSI.

The PSSI program is run by Dive Rescue International (DRI) and is focused completely on the training of Public Safety Divers (PSD).  It is one of the only world class organizations that cater to the 911 rescue community.  Dive Rescue personnel come from Law Enforcement, SAR Teams and Fire Departments around the globe.

I was selected to attend this program by my team to attend this course.  In order to attend you must have completed many of the PSD courses including Medical Dive Principles, Swift Water Rescue and Ice Diving.  You need to be a very good swimmer with a relaxed attitude in the water and have strong academic abilities to understand the gas laws and dive physics.

As an instructor you entire mission is to prepare 911 divers for the dangerous environment where someone is already in jeopardy.  Dive Rescue personnel are called when someone is trapped under the ice, in a vehicle that has plunged into the water, drowned in a body of water, river or lost in fast water someplace.

Entering the water alone in adverse conditions is very risky.  Every year there is an average of five rescue divers that lose their lives.  The startling part of this statistic is that these deaths all happen during what is called recovery mode.

The Training

The course lasted one week and was brutal with go or no go drills, constant evals in the water and lots of stress inoculation. It was run by a former Underwater Demolition Team (UDT/SEAL) from Tennessee and he was squared away and intense. We lost two out of the 12 members of the clas in the first day, both of which were SCUBA Instructors from civilian certifications. This was NOT a recreational dive certification. This was built for zero visability, under the ice and all manner of horrible diving conditions that 911 divers find them selves in.

On day one we spent most of the day in the water doing our basic swim repeated twice and floating in the deep end with 25 pound weight belts and four people. Each time the weights hit the bottom of the pool he would ad 5 minutes to the float time needed. We were in the water 55 minutes the first evolution and that is when the first two guys quit. We then repeated everything after getting ripped apart as pathetic souls who should not even be there.

The program was not designed to wash people out, it was designed with standards that were uncompromising. The nature of rescue water work is some of if not the most intense in the world, and only a few folks are cut out to perform those tasks let alone teach them to new candidates.

I ended up gratuating with the class leardership award. Tough and I will NEVER forget the lessons learned here.

Some Lessons Learned

Calm Cool and Collective

The instructor constantly taught us that panic does not improve a declining situation. We would experience this first hand in the water by performing drills in black water with a partner.


Simply stated the question is asked; is recovering the victim worth the risk to the diver.  In reality if this principle was applied literally no diver would ever enter the water as the risk is always high, especially in fast water (rivers) or under the ice.

Someone has to do it.  We can’t just leave people behind in the harsh environments that caused their demise or death.  While there is always underlying risks, it is the purpose of the Dive Team leadership, instructors and diver to mitigate that risk and get everyone back safely while at the same time accomplishing the mission.

Rescue or Recovery

The difference between Rescue mode or Recovery mode is set by the Incident Commander on scene and sometimes the Emergency Room (ER) lead doctor.  It is dictated by the ability to get to the victim and resituate them.  Often the timeframe will be one hour for a drowning, but it can be as long as one and a half hours.

In Rescue mode you work as fast and as safe as possible to get the victims out of the danger zone and to the ER.  In recovery mode things should slow down and safety should become even more paramount.

Is the scene safe?

Rarely is it completely safe, but from a rescue standpoint we are looking at things like flammable fluid around the scene, is the car still running etc.  The key is to remember that you have been called to an environment that has put someone else in jeopardy.  Look at the scene quickly and determine if it is appropriate to commit rescue personnel to the rescue/recovery operation.

After I became a Dive Rescue Instructor, the opportunity to go on National recoveries increased as these calls came from Dive Rescue Headquarters and only included qualified instructors.