By Jennifer Heikkila • Eagle Mine
(Edited at 11:10 AM, Feb 27, 2019, to include a more in-depth account of the rescue).
When you live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, you know you will endure long, cold, and snowy winters, coupled with a snowstorm or two that dumps several inches of snow in only a few hours.
It’s essential to prepare for these Yooper winters with safety in mind – having the proper equipment and clothing, making sure your vehicle has good tires and equipped with the right tools in case of emergency, and staying home and off the roads until each storm passes.
This past month’s record-breaking snowfall in the Upper Peninsula has indeed put all Upper Peninsula residents to the test when it comes to safely handling winter storms. The National Weather Service Marquette Office has recorded 202.2 inches of snow so far for the season. That’s nearly double the amount of snow from the same time last year.
Sunday’s storm brought us 16 inches of snow, along with high winds, blowing snow, and ice. It was so intense that several reports from local emergency responders, fire, and police were sent out telling residents to stay off the roads because they can’t keep up with all accidents and search and rescue calls.
At the Eagle Mine site in Big Bay, Michigan, safety measures were already being put in place until the storm passed – ore haulage and underground mining were suspended, and only essential personnel reported to work.
Part of that essential personnel was Eagle Mine’s security team, contracted by G4S, who are trained paramedics and emergency medical technicians. They work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure site security as well as employee safety.
And Sunday night, they and other staff helped save the lives of two snowmobilers stranded in the woods.
It all started at 6:20 PM when two snowmobilers stopped at the Eagle Mine Security building to tell them that two men on their snowmobiles were stuck on a nearby trail.
“We called Marquette County Central Dispatch to pinpoint a location and found they were closer to Baraga County, and they contacted Regional Dispatch to take over the call. Regional Dispatch then dispatched Search and Rescue,” said Sandy Vargo, G4S EMT for Eagle Mine. “They told us they could get their county trail groomer to come out, but it would be at least 3 hours, and they weren’t even sure he’d make it due to the weather.”
It was this news that got Alan Favero’s heart beating. Alan, a Cementation underground miner for Eagle Mine, had been following the incident with Security since the time he arrived for his shift at 6:45 PM.
“Knowing the Upper Peninsula and being a resident of Bessemer for 32 years, as well as an avid backcountry rider, I knew the snowmobilers were not going to last long,” said Alan.
As time went by, Alan’s coworker, Ryan Still, also an underground miner, looked over at Alan asked him what he wanted to do.
“I asked Ryan to call Sandy at Security and see if there were any updates, which is when we learned it would now be 5-7 hours before the groomer was going to be able to reach the area.”
That’s when Alan looked at Ryan and said, “Get your gear on, let’s go. And they headed to Security to make a rescue plan.
“We realized that the stranded snowmobilers were so close to us,” Sandy said. “They were about 4 miles off the end of the AAA road.”
After coming up with a rescue plan with Security where Alan and Ryan considered their own safety as well as the snowmobilers, the miners felt comfortable heading out and searching for them.
“Our personal safety was going to be number one and if it had gotten too bad, we would turn around,” said Alan, “I said we either go and get these guys now and rescue them…or risk this turning into a recovery.”
Ryan added, "I was not OK knowing there were two guys stranded out in the worst conditions I've ever seen and not doing anything to try and help. We are all brothers and sisters, so we went to help out our brothers."
Alan and Ryan began prepping for the rescue with the proper clothing and equipment and radio to ensure they had communication with Security. They would ride on their own snowmobiles that they had with them when they went to work that day.
Caleb Taylor, an employee with MJ Van Damme, cleared a path a short distance past the underground vent raise with a front-end loader to break the trail.
And from there, Alan and Ryan rode on their snowmobiles into the woods to search for the stranded snowmobilers. Along the way they encountered 7 to 9 foot snow drifts and faced -21 F temperatures.
It took them awhile to reach Trail 14, where they knew the snowmobilers were stranded. Once they began to head down the trail, they faced 50 MPH winds that completely blocked their vision and spatial awareness of where they were. They both got their snowmobiles stuck along the way and had to dig themselves out.
At this point, Alan used Ryan’s cap lamp (miner’s light) to look around in the snow, searching for an indicator as to where the trail continued on.
“I noticed what looked to be an area that was recessed about 12 feet wide, so I told Ryan we were headed that way,” said Alan.
The rescue duo continued on for another 1.5 miles and then stopped when they came to what looked like a hillside.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw a light turn on about 120 yards away, and that’s when we discovered the missing snowmobilers,” said Alan.
The snowmobilers weren’t in good shape. They were mumbling and stumbling and laying down next to their snowmobile’s exhaust while it was running. Their faces were white and lips were blue, and their facial hair frozen.
"I am very thankful we saw the light on their snowmobile, otherwise with the wind like it was we would have never seen or heard them," said Ryan.
They radioed Sandy back at Security that they had the snowmobilers and they began the journey back, which was just as treacherous as the journey there. They got stuck several more times and faced wicked winds and near zero visibility.
“All I cared about was to get them to safety, so we pushed on and before we knew it we were back,” said Alan.
That’s when the G4S Security team – Noah Krycia, Shanna Trapani, and Sandy Vargo – took over and began to assess and treat the snowmobilers.
“Their body core temperature was below hypothermic, in the low 90s,” said Sandy. “It took a few hours to get them stabilized.”
Once the men were healthy and back on their feet, Sandy and her team put them up in a hotel in Big Bay, where they checked in around midnight.
“A huge hat’s off to the crew,” said Sandy. “They risked their own lives to go out and save those men.”
Sandy added, “It’s pretty amazing. It couldn’t have gone smoother, and the fact that they are alive. We were very proactive and ahead of the situation the entire time.”
Ryan added, "The two fathers got to go home to their families and that's what is most important to me."
“And as far as their sleds,” added Alan, “I went and recovered both of them Monday afternoon and they were returned to the rightful owners.”
But the happy story doesn’t end just there. Throughout the evening that the two snowmobilers were stranded, Eagle Mine Site Security also heard reports of several more snowmobilers stranded in the woods, and that there were still four more being searched for.
Around 8:00 AM Monday morning, one of those four snowmobilers stopped at Mine Security to tell them they were okay. And the reason they were okay is that they sought shelter in one of Eagle’s exploration drill rigs and he wanted to apologize for breaking in and using some of the supplies.
The snowmobiler informed security that they were lost and searching for shelter and happened upon one of the drill rigs, which is owned and operated by Eagle Mine exploration contractor, Boart Longyear. They had to break into the drill rig to get out of the storm. They stayed warm with the indoor heater and kept hydrated with bottled water.
The rest of the snowmobilers then showed up to site security to thank them and apologize.
The Eagle Mine Security team was nothing but happy to know they were safe and were able to find shelter. And when they learned they hadn’t eaten in over a day, the security team cooked them up bacon and eggs before they continued their week-long snowmobile trip.
It’s stories like these that make you feel good – someone saving the day. These stories can also be a good lesson in the do’s and don’ts of winter safety.
Winters in the Upper Peninsula are nothing to mess with; the snow can bring serious consequences to those who take risks. It’s always important to keep safety in mind and to make sure you have the proper tools and equipment to endure a long winter.
And if you have to venture out – especially to rescue someone – always have a well thought out plan and the right tools to get the job done safely.
Here's a few photos taken from the four snowmobilers who found refuge in Eagle's exploration drill rig.