Marines rescued 28 Boy Scouts and four chaperones Saturday night after they were reported missing when they failed to reach a checkpoint during a canoe trip.
With nightfall approaching, a search and rescue team based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma was tasked with helping to locate the group, which had spent hours lost in a thick quagmire of high reeds and twisted waterways off the Colorado River. The operation started after the Yuma County Sheriff's Department received a call at 2:36 p.m. from a party concerned about the group's whereabouts.
Unable to locate the Boy Scouts and chaperones traveling in 16 canoes, the sheriff's office called for outside assistance at 5:14 p.m. Within minutes, Capt. Wes Urquhart, an HH-1N Huey pilot with the air station's search and rescue unit, assembled his crew and they were airborne.
"We're kind of the only asset in the area that's able to do these rescues and technical revolutions at night," he said.
Urquhart flew the crew to a stretch of the Colorado River where they regularly train. When they saw deputies from the sheriff's office below, they landed to coordinate. As it grew darker, the crew donned night vision goggles, went airborne again and combed the east side of the river.
They spotted the Boy Scouts almost immediately, he said. The group had veered off the river, down a winding waterway, and into a clearing surrounded by reeds that obstructed their vision.
"They were tucked away in this little hidden lake with these little estuaries with these tall, tall reeds," Urquhart said. "I can easily see how they would get lost in there."
They flew close to the group, hovering about a foot above the ground. A corpsman got out of the helo to make sure no one was hurt. The group was hungry and tired, but otherwise fine, Urquhart said.
While the corpsman checked on everyone, the rest of the aircrew flew away to find a spot for the scouts to paddle back to the river. About a mile away, they found an escape route and met up with deputies to guide them to the lost group, using chemical sticks to mark the way.
"We left a breadcrumb trail crumb for the sheriff's department," Urquhart said.
The deputies eventually made it to the scouts and helped guide them back to the river with the Marines and their HH-1N Huey overhead. Within an hour, the Boy Scouts and their chaperones made it back to the river where deputies helped guide them.
A unique mission
The search and rescue squad at Yuma regularly trains with sheriff's deputies, said Alfonso Zavala, spokesman for she sheriff's office. It's the only aviation unit in the area that can not only do aerial searches, but also provide medical aid when victims are found on the ground since the fly with a corpsman, Urquhart said.
Their primary mission is to rescue downed pilots in the event, which requires them to be able to fly in the dark.
"As a pilot you don't want to wait for daytime," he said.
The unit primarily trains to help the fixed-wing aircraft at Yuma if there's a mishap, but Urqhart said calls to assist the local community make up about 90 percent of their operations. Shortly before they rescued the Boy Scouts, he said they helped free a woman from her car after she got stuck in flood waters.
It's different from life in the fleet, but it's very satisfying work, Urquhart said.
"It's actually one of the most rewarding billets I've had in my Marine Corps career," he said.