Rural region presents unique challenge for recovery teams
Jan 10, 2017

HARRISBURG — A plane crash New Year’s Eve in rural Johnson County has highlighted a unique issue for search and rescue teams in Southern Illinois.

“Had we not had an eyewitness, it could have very easily been months before it would have been located there,” Vienna Fire Chief Brent Williams said of the location of the wreckage.

He said the plane came down in a thick patch of woods that was challenging to search through.

“Our biggest problem out there was the dense nature of the woods itself, navigating the woods and actually locating the wreckage,” he said, adding that he and his 16-person team were lucky the plane was roughly 50 yards into the woods. This way they were able to get the necessary tools in and out to help with their response.

With the majority of Southern Illinois consisting of undeveloped, rural land, this is not an isolated concern. The problem is only amplified in places like the 28,000 acres of wilderness in the Shawnee National Forest. This was the case Aug. 10, 2015, when a small passenger plane crashed in the Burden Falls Wilderness.

Matthew Lechner, Natural Resources Program Manager for the National Forest Service on the Shawnee, said when the plane went down there was a lot of ground to cover — the entire eastern portion of the forest to be specific. However, he said in less than 24 hours, the search team had located the plane.

After the remains of the pilot and passenger were removed, Lechner said he and the team were faced with another challenge: How to get the plane itself out. Because the land the plane crashed on is designated wilderness, there is a very limited scope of tools that are deemed appropriate to be used when working there. This wilderness ethic can be suspended in certain emergency situations (like that of the initial search party), but it is preferred that no mechanized tools be brought in.

“We weighed our options,” said Eric Stead, Forestry Technician for the U.S. Forest Service.

They performed a minimum tool analysis to figure out how to proceed. Stead said because they determined it was no longer an emergency situation, they decided to go by their standard code of conduct.
“It was just a matter of figuring out the most efficient way to get this stuff to where we could haul it off,” he said.

They then set to work. Over almost five 12-hour days, he and a team of about 10 people combed the area looking for debris and wrapping their minds around how to take apart a plane and drag it out, pieces at a time, from the woods.

“It was just one piece after another,” Stead said. He remembers clearly the biggest component he and his crew members had to move: the plane's engine. To get it out, they used a deer sled and took turns pulling it up and down hill until it was out of the forest. It was not the easiest thing in the late-August heat, Stead admitted. Ultimately, Stead said he would do it the same way again.

“In the end it’s easier to know that you have done things the right way than what could possibly be perceived as the easy way,” he said.

Looking back, he said where the plane fell was remote, but would have eventually been found, though not quickly.

“It would have been discovered eventually but it’s really hard to say just how long that would have been,” stead said. This may seem disheartening at first, but that may, in a way, be part of the point.
“There is the opportunity to get out in the middle of some of our wildernesses and feel like civilization is behind you,” he said.

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