I heard the news Easter Sunday. I was on top of a ridge at Arctic Valley taking pictures of the kids skiing off the cornice. It was a bluebird morning—the kind where the mountains aren’t just calling, they are begging you to come. The text was simple and direct. “Helo 1 went down. Mel is gone. I am devastated.”
My husband and two of our dogs had flown countless Search & Rescue missions with Mel over the years. At the memorial, many of these missions were recounted. They even had four victims speak who had been plucked from certain despair by Mel and his bird. Their stories were all more or less the same. Wrong place, wrong time, a couple bad decisions, not enough gear or experience.
Mel and Helo 1 went down on one of these missions. Stranded snow machiner. Mel and Trooper Toll had rescued the snow machiner and were on the short five minute flight back to the highway when something went horribly wrong. Almost a month later, we still don’t know what happened. The fuel tanks were full and the fires burned for over sixteen hours. There wasn’t much left. The black box wasn’t found until a second trip back to the crash site.
No one is even speculating about what might have happened. Mel was the best. Mel flew when no one else could. He and Helo 1 flew as one unit—each knowing the capabilities of the other. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard over the years about his remarkable skill as a pilot.
But this isn’t a piece about why Helo 1 went down, but rather a thought about why it went up in the first place. There were easily one hundred or more members of various Alaska Search & Rescue volunteer agencies at the memorial (not to mention the hundreds of State Troopers, the governor and even a couple senators). Alaska Nordic Ski Patrol, Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Alaska Search & Rescue Dogs, Alaska Search & Rescue Association and more. Each one of them has gone out in every kind of weather to bring home the lost, the injured, the cold, the scared and sometimes the remains of complete strangers. They train, as Mel did, hundreds of hours to put their lives on the line to bring others home. They do this, as Mel did, without question. I served as dispatch for Alaska Search & Rescue Dogs for fifteen years. When the call comes, you go. You ask, “where, how many,” you don’t ask “who?” A retired trooper told me it doesn’t matter who it is. He’s right. It doesn’t matter if you are rescuing a drug dealer, a child, a jerk, or an elder. You just go. It doesn’t matter if the victim had no business being there in the first place. You just go—so that others may live.
And that is exactly what Mel did his last flight. He went to bring home a man to be with his family for Easter. Like Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Mel was a helper.
My son is headed off as I write to go backcountry skiing. We go through the gear list one more time. Beacon? Check. Probe? Check. Shovel? Check. Ten Essentials? Check. Still I worry. Mel isn’t here anymore to bring him home.
At the memorial, somewhere between Amazing Grace on bagpipes and the twenty-one gun salute, somewhere between the slide show of Mel as husband, father, grandfather and his daughter’s touching farewell, there was a message. Of course, there were the usual, “live life to its fullest” and “love your family everyday” messages, but there was one more as well. One of the troopers speaking at the memorial even referenced it. We can honor Mel and all the other “helpers” out there by going out prepared. Stop and think the next time you go into the backcountry for a few minutes. Think about the countless volunteer and professional public safety individuals who will need to drop what they are doing and put their lives in harm’s way to come and get you.
I’m sure Mel is up in heaven flying around everyday in his spotless bird. And, I’m sure the search dogs of heaven are lining up for a chance to fly with him once again. Thank you Mel for your service. You will be missed.