Nyack, N.Y. -- When a Long Island hiker veered off trail at Hook Mountain State Park and fell precipitously to an outcropping last month, emergency personnel from several town, county and state park departments showed up on the scene.
But it was a little-known, highly skilled group of Nyack fire fighters who scaled the mountain and brought the victim down in a three-hour rescue operation using ropes and specialized equipment that saved the man's life.
Nyack's High Angle Rescue Team has a dozen skilled volunteer fire fighters who train year-round to rescue stranded, lost or injured hikers, mostly from Hook Mountain and Rockland State Park. Ranging in age from 18 to near 60, these strapping souls (think calendar material) are ready to assist in any "high angle" rescues, for example, if there were to be a fall at the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction site.
Nyack's 150 volunteer firefighters, made up of eight companies, typically respond to 450 calls annually. Alain Leinbach, a High Angle Rescue Team member, and a South Nyack Village Trustee/Deputy Mayor, says his team is called on two or three times a year. In an unusual turn, the team conducted two hiking rescues during the last two weeks of December.
On a recent frigid night, Leinbach and his team colleague Bob Van Cura, recreated their recent Hook Mountain rescue at the Nyack Park Street firehouse. Leinbach was the first to scale the mountain. His phone's GPS gave him the exact coordinates to locate the fallen hiker. Once he secured the victim, who was immobile and exhausted, and covered him with his jacket, he guided six team members, wearing 100-pound backpacks with ropes and other equipment, to the remote spot.
The team got the hiker onto a Stokes basket, also known as a litter, which is a metal stretcher that's used in confined spaces, on slopes and in wooded terrain. Commonly used in search and rescue, it was invented by Rear Admiral Charles Francis Stokes, a retired Surgeon General of the Navy from 1910 to 1924. The person is strapped into the basket, protected by a long spine board and a cervical collar.
Next, the High Angle Rescue Team had to devise a safe operation to lower the hiker 250 feet down the mountain on slippery slopes with loose rocks and a blanket of wet leaves. Four men, attached to rope harnesses carrying the Stokes basket, were lowered by two men who remained at the top performing what's known as a "controlled descent." Like a puppeteer, the men at the top control the movements of those who are descending.
"This is a very tedious exercise that involves great precision," said Leinbach.
Leinbach says high angle rescue is both mentally and physically challenging. Apart from possessing those spider-men skills of vertiginous climbing, and an understanding of knot-tying and rope pulleys and rappelling, this kind of rescue is akin to a puzzle. No two operations are the same. "You really have to think it through," said Leinbach, because so many things can go wrong.
Happily, the High Angle Rescue Team has never failed.
"Why do we do this?" team member Bob Van Cura says, repeating a reporter's question. "To give back," said Van Cura, adding his father and grandfather were all firefighters.
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