When John Utsey and his kids went for a hike in the summer of 2020, he experienced what must be among a parent’s worst nightmares: becoming separated from one of his children in the vast and unforgiving wilderness. But when the dad called out to his lost daughter, trying to locate her among the towering trees, he was answered by a mysterious voice – one that didn’t sound at all as though it belonged to a young girl. Something had to be wrong.
And Utsey never could’ve guessed what that sound would ultimately lead him to. He and his children had been enjoying a stroll on the picturesque Winsor Trail – a lengthy path within New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest. Naturally, the mountainous region is a popular spot for explorers in the area.
The Utsey clan followed in the footsteps of these hikers, then, as they took in their surroundings on the trail. The dad and his family all camp, too, and enjoy biking and geocaching. Something tells us that they love the great outdoors!
But an appreciation for nature couldn’t prepare Utsey for what happened in the summer of 2020. Something was waiting for him and his family in the dark recesses of the New Mexico woods – something that the father could not ignore. And as soon as he heard the mysterious cry, Utsey and his kids’ relaxing hike morphed into an unforgettable experience.
Utsey was 47 when he took to the trail that day, while his two kids were 12 and ten. And while the great outdoors can sometimes be unforgiving, the father probably had better survival skills than most. For starters, he’s a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Then, after leaving service, Utsey took a position at the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe. The veteran worked there as one of the facility’s data center managers, staying in his role for a decade and a half. That’s a lengthy stint!
Utsey ultimately switched careers, though, and moved into a field you probably wouldn’t associate with former Marines. Back in 2013, the dad of two scored a job at Santa Fe Prep. Yes, he’s now working at a school, where he’s currently the director of technology.
With that broad range of experiences under his belt, then, you’d think that Utsey would have no problems navigating the Winsor Trail with his kids. The path itself is just over 22 miles in length and stretches across some beautiful terrain. The forest, in particular, makes for a truly stunning backdrop while walking.
But if you don’t like heights, we’d advise against tackling this trail in New Mexico. At its highest point, the winding path hits a peak of more than 11,000 feet. No, that’s not a typo! Even the less lofty areas are still pretty hair-raising, as they drop no lower than 7,000 feet above sea level.
Yet it seems that the vast majority of folks who take on this trail wouldn’t consider it to be a particularly tough journey. On the Hiking Project website, three-quarters of walkers deemed the path suitable for people with only intermediate-level experience. The rest saw the trail as “difficult.” And that’s not even taking into consideration the strange sound that turned Utsey’s day upside down.
Suffice to say, then, that the Winsor Trail isn’t a cakewalk for everyone. But what about the forest itself? Is it worth visiting? We think so! If you love alpine trees, you’ll probably adore wandering around the area. But this idyllic spot does still harbor some dangers.
One tragic story emerged back in the fall of 2013. Not long before, a firefighter named Token Adams had journeyed into Santa Fe National Forest to see if a blaze had broken out there. Adams – a member of the United States Forest Service – had hopped aboard an all-terrain vehicle and taken off in search of the flames.
After driving into the forest at the end of August, though, Adams failed to come back out. And while a 200-strong search party was formed to find him, unfortunately none of the intrepid rescuers could locate the fireman over the nailbiting days that followed.
It didn’t look good, and those fears were confirmed on the eighth day of the search when Adams’ body was discovered in the woods. The New Mexico State Police told reporters that the firefighter looked to have been killed in an ATV accident. The U.S. Forest Service worker had been just 41 at the time of his death.
And sadly Adams isn’t the only person to have lost their life in this attractive part of New Mexico. In the summer of 2014, a senior hiker named Audrey Richman Kaplan similarly disappeared. She had been on the Winsor Trail with her husband before the pair had lost sight of each other.
Kaplan and her other half, Norman, had been looking for mushrooms that grow in the forest. Then, after she had disappeared, a large group naturally came together to find her. One of the people in the search team was a woman named Judy Allison, who’d been a pal of Kaplan’s for many years.
And Allison reflected on the effort to locate Kaplan while speaking to Texas radio station KERA in 2014. She said, “We searched every conceivable place. It was over 300, maybe 350 people came out to volunteer to help and were all over those mountains looking for her.” By any right, then, they should have found the missing woman.
When Kaplan was located, though, it was clear that she had tragically passed away. Judging by the position of her remains, the 75-year-old had seemingly traveled over a mile from her last known position on the Winsor Trail. It was naturally devastating news for Allison, who had long been fearful for her friend’s safety.
And Kaplan’s loved one believed that her untimely passing served as a warning to those who took traveling on the trail lightly. Allison explained, “The fact is that Audrey had been told many, many times by me and others that she dressed inappropriately and didn’t carry the appropriate gear for hiking in the mountains. So [her death] wasn’t a surprise.”
You clearly need to be careful, then, while navigating the Winsor Trail. And given what happened to Kaplan, we don’t blame Utsey for showing some concern when his daughter left his line of sight in August 2020. But the veteran definitely got more than he bargained for after shouting out to her.
So what actually transpired on that fateful day? Well, we’ll let the dad himself set the scene. When speaking to Alberquerque station KRQE in August 2020, he explained that his oldest child had first run ahead on the path – and away from his field of view. “I called her name, and she didn’t call back to me,” Utsey recalled. “So, I called her name really loud.”
“And then I heard [my daughter] yell back to me from way up around the corner,” Utsey continued. “I couldn’t see her, but she had gone the right way. Then I heard somebody else answer from way off the trail.” That led to a bizarre 20 minutes, as the tech whiz engaged in a loud conversation with the mysterious stranger.
Utsey was trying to pinpoint where that voice was coming from, and in the end he and his kids took an unexpected detour. According to the KRQE report, the trio traveled 600 yards away from the path and up a large slope. Then, finally, the Utseys found the source of the noise.
The strange voice had come from a hiker in a really tough spot. He had been stuck in the Santa Fe National Forest for two whole weeks and, at the time of his discovery, seemed to be barely clinging to life. That was evident from the description Utsey gave of the man to KRQE.
“[The hiker] was lying beside a creek. He couldn’t stand, he couldn’t move; he was delirious. So he wasn’t making much sense,” Utsey recalled. “His lips were all chapped to the point they were bleeding. His tongue was swollen; he was super gaunt and skinny. I was like, ‘This guy really needs help.’”
Utsey offered up more information on this dire situation in another interview. In August 2020 the dad of two appeared on CBC’s As It Happens radio show, where he described the man’s condition. Then he shed some light on what may have happened to the hiker to land him in such a perilous state.
“[The hiker’s] face was so gaunt. Like, his cheeks were hollow,” Utsey said. “He looked like he had severe [sun] exposure and had not eaten in a long time. I asked him, you know, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘My legs don’t work.’ And I said, you know, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘I think I fell.’”
Anyway, as much as Utsey wanted to help this poor guy, he came to a quick realization. As the veteran had already clocked up around 12 miles of walking at the time he had first heard the voice, he didn’t believe he had the strength to take the hiker to safety and help his children out of the forest.
What did Utsey do, then? Well, ahead of returning to the path, he and his children handed the hiker their food and drink. Then the trio headed for the trailhead, which by itself was another three miles away. And, finally, the former Marine was able to get in touch with the emergency services.
Some 60 minutes later, a local fire crew arrived at the trail. To help find the hiker, Utsey also handed over his GPS coordinates, as these pinpointed the spot where the man had been stranded. You’d think that’d be the end of things, right? After all, the group just needed to follow the directions.
But there was another twist in this tale. The firefighters failed to locate the injured man, despite having his coordinates. They spent roughly eight hours looking for him before coming to a stop. And the department’s captain attempted to justify this decision when speaking to KRQE.
Nathan Garcia admitted, “It was a little bit difficult to have to call off the search and rescue efforts.” This may not have satisfied Utsey, who was left scratching his head at the predicament. “I thought it was strange,” he told As It Happens. “Like, I figured if [the firefighters] were standing there and [the hiker] wasn’t, then something must have happened. It was so surreal.”
But beyond the feelings of bafflement, Utsey was also dealing with a little bit of guilt. The dad told KRQE, “So, I’m laying there, like, this guy is still in the mountains. So, at nine o’clock Sunday morning, I get in and put my hiking boots back on and hike back. And he was exactly where I left him.”
We can sense your relief from here! According to Utsey, the hiker struggled to recall if he’d overheard the fire crew. It’s possible, in fact, that he’d been passed out as the rescuers walked by. What happened next? Well, after getting in touch with the authorities for a second time, Utsey didn’t leave the path. Instead, he stayed there for about four hours.
Thankfully, the emergency services did finally reach the pair. And not long after, there was happy news to share. Roughly 24 hours later, the Santa Fe Fire Department’s Facebook page posted a statement about the incident that read, “Station 1 A shift crew did a nine-hour trail rescue to save a man that was lost in the Santa Fe forest for 14 days.”
“[The crew] built a fire to bring up the man’s body temperature which was dangerously low, fed him and gave him water,” the message continued. “The man suffered from chronic back pain and again injured his back while hiking, [meaning he] could not stand or walk. His gear was stolen, at which point he got lost and disoriented.”
The Facebook message also hailed Utsey’s efforts in saving the hiker. Well deserved, we say! And once the post was published, it quickly gained traction on social media. The fire department’s words earned hundreds of likes and numerous shares along with plenty of positive comments.
Garcia also made a poignant statement about the hiker to KRQE. “Never had we found somebody who had been out for that long,” the fire department captain noted. “It’s hard to say. The human body can do some amazing things sometimes, but I don’t think he had very much left in him.”
“[The hiker] seemed kind of at the end when we did actually encounter him,” Garcia added. “He would wiggle his way to the stream. He would drink water from the stream and then wiggle his way away from the stream at nightfall because of the colder temperatures that the stream brought. He had the will to survive, for sure.”
What happened to the hiker? Well, following the ordeal, he was left to recuperate at a nearby medical facility. Utsey still hadn’t learned his name at that point, but at least the man was finally safe. And thank goodness that Utsey’s daughter had run down the trail in the first place, as it ultimately saved a life.
That same month, another rescue effort came to a conclusive end. Clouds partially covered an otherwise blue sky above the scattered islands of Micronesia, and a US Air Force KC-135 tanker was powering above this peaceful scene on the look-out for some sailors who had been missing for three days. But as concerns grew that the men had perished, the pilot spotted something unusual on a tiny island. And it was at that moment that he decided to call for help.
The sailors had gone missing on July 30, 2020, after having set off from the small atoll of Poluwat. But when they didn’t make it to their destination – the even tinier Pulap Atoll – the three men were reported as lost.
The missing report was instigated the next day, and it was filed by officials on the United States’ Pacific Ocean territory of Guam. Perhaps they were informed of the AWOL sailors by friends or family who were expecting them to return to the Pulap Atoll where they all lived. Nevertheless, whoever first raised the alarm must have been really concerned for their wellbeing.
For their part, the lost mariners were all natives of Micronesia. That is the collective name for the over 600 islands and atolls that are scattered across the Caroline Islands archipelago in the western part of the Pacific. For reference, they are located south of Japan and to the north of Papua New Guinea.
The three Micronesian sailors had taken to the western Pacific in a small, skiff-style vessel on that fateful Thursday. But they then disappeared at some point on their journey. And the prospect of them surviving out there for numerous days was quite slim.
Of course, being stuck out on the Pacific Ocean on a small boat for days is extremely dangerous. Firstly, it could leave the three Micronesian mariners at the mercy of the fast-changing and often hazardous weather out there. Indeed, their small boat was at the mercy of storms and crashing waves that could easily sink or capsize it.
The men also had the possibility of coming face-to-face with some dangerous species lurking underneath the Pacific Ocean’s vast waters – such as the Great White Shark. One or more of the notorious hunters could attempt to take a bite out of the vessel – mistaking it for potential prey. They could even breach the water in order to grab their meal.
But the possibility of being attacked by a Great White might be the least of the sailor’s worries. The chances of that terrifying scenario may seem slim, but the threat of dehydration was much more real. If the men had not packed enough fresh water then they faced fall prey to that condition if not rescued quickly enough. Humans cannot drink salty ocean water, remember, and doing so in an attempt to quell dehydration can kill you.
Death by dehydration could occur within three to five days – or potentially less – depending on the heat. The sailors could also be in significant danger of contracting hypothermia if they were wet. This occurs when the human body emits more warmth than it creates – leading to a significant drop in temperature.
Severe hypothermia can eventually result in major organ failure. Furthermore, if any of the three missing sailors had any chronic ailments like diabetes, autoimmune deficiency, heart disease or arthritis, then they would be more susceptible to developing the condition.
Finally, the sailors could eventually perish due to starvation. Experts suggest that could happen anywhere between four to eight weeks, according to the website Professor’s House. Otherwise, they would have to try and catch fish or sea birds to survive.
Incredibly, one man actually did manage to survive purely on local wildlife at sea. An American citizen of Vietnamese origin called Richard Van Pham embarked on what was supposed to be a routine 37-kilometer trip from California’s Long Beach to Catalina Island in May 2002. But the sailor’s boat ended up being severely damaged by high winds.
The mast of Van Pham’s 26-foot-long vessel Sea Breeze was irreparably broken by powerful gales over the Pacific. Also ominously malfunctioning was the vessel’s outboard motor and two-way radio. In essence, every sailor’s worst nightmare had come true for him, and he was propelled scarily across the ocean.
Van Pham reportedly spent close to four months stranded in the Pacific Ocean with no one else in sight. Nevertheless, the then-62-year-old sailor somehow managed to stay alive largely thanks to his keen survival instincts. He maintained a steady stream of vital drinking water by gathering rainfall in a bucket. Van Pham also reportedly captured enough fish and seabirds to eat, which he cooked on a small grill present on board.
Eventually, Van Pham was spotted by a U.S. military aircraft that just happened to be conducting operations in the area he had drifted into. Incredibly, Van Pham had almost made it all the way to Costa Rica. A small rescue boat from the American warship USS McClusky then moved in to collect the long-stranded sailor.
The sailor was in relatively good shape despite the nature of his ordeal. Van Pham claimed that he had lost about 40 pounds in weight and was philosophical about his frightening fight for survival. He told the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “If you travel at sea, you take what you find. If you are scared, you will die.”
With all of this in mind, then, the three Micronesian sailors were clearly in some peril. Nonetheless, Van Pham’s incredible tale of survival meant there was still some hope of finding them alive. The rescue attempts would probably have to bear fruit pretty soon, though, as time was clearly of the essence.
A rescue operation was duly launched soon after the missing report was filed. It would be a joint operation primarily led by the U.S. and Australian militaries. The United States, of course, retains numerous strategically placed territories in the area. The most notable of these is the aforementioned island of Guam. That terrain was taken from the Spanish in 1898 and later recaptured from Japan during World War II.
Australia, meanwhile, is situated some distance below Papua New Guinea and Indonesia – surrounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The southern hemisphere nation is just over 4,000 kilometers south of the Micronesia region where the three sailors went missing. And the Australian military kindly provided one of its helicopters to help find the men.
The chopper which was used to search for the missing men was on its way to Hawaii when the alarm about their disappearance was raised. It was being transported to the 50th U.S. state via the HMAS Canberra. That imposing ship – often referred to as a landing helicopter dock – weighs in at an astonishing 27,000 tons, according to the Australian military.
The Royal Australian Navy website notes that the HMAS Canberra provides it “with one of the most capable and sophisticated air-land-sea amphibious deployment systems in the world.” Furthermore, it contributes “to the defense of Australia and its national interests, and also allows the [Australian Defence Force] to provide large-scale humanitarian assistance, at home or in our region.”
The Australian Defence Force was now badly needed for its stated aim of humanitarian assistance. It duly exempted one of its helicopters from the naval drills that it was en-route to Hawaii for. Instead, the chopper and its men would search high and low for the missing Micronesian sailors.
The United States, meanwhile, would offer up both operatives and transportation from its Coast Guard and Air Force for the search. Specifically, the former branch offering its services was the District 14 Hawaii Pacific. The Australians and Americans would also be assisted in the efforts by responders from the Federated States of Micronesia.
The formidable joint forces were assembled after a call for help was made by the Rescue and Coordination Centre in Guam. That occurred after it emerged on August 1 that three sailors had gone missing en-route to their destination. After some coordination between the teams, the search for the missing Micronesian mariners was officially on.
The search for the disappeared trio was worryingly fruitless for the first few days. Despite the ample resources available, the would-be rescuers could not locate the sailors, who had vanished sometime during their roughly 40-kilometer trip between the Pulawat and Pulap atolls. In truth, the hunt for the men was like searching for a needle in a haystack.
You see, the Pacific Ocean covers an astonishing 165.2 million kilometers², which is close to 60 million kilometers² more than the Atlantic. That humungous area means it is the biggest of Earth’s oceans. It is also the deepest; the Pacific covers an area so large that 46 percent of all the planet’s surface water comes under its jurisdiction, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
In addition to that, the Pacific Ocean – which spans from the Arctic to the Southern Antarctic – covers approximately 32 percent of Earth’s total surface area. This means it is larger than all of our planet’s continents put together – making a search for missing individuals particularly difficult.
Another problem the prospective rescuers faced was the fact that the Micronesia region spans approximately 2,700 kilometers. Plus, it boasts a mind-boggling 2,100 islands. So, the team will likely have had to decide on a realistic search zone to boost their chances of finding the men.
The searchers were very much up against it then – given the size of the Pacific Ocean and the scattered sprawl of Micronesia. Add to that all the ways in which the three Micronesian men could perish we discussed earlier, and you get a sense of the task at hand. But on the third day of looking, the international rescue team spotted a potential lead on a remote island.
Yes, an American pilot flying a KC-135 tanker could see something curious far below on a beach on the island. That passing flier alerted his Australian counterparts in the helicopter, and the latter soon descended to take a closer look. Apparently, it appeared as if there was something etched in the sand.
When the helicopter got close enough, the pilot could see clearly what was scrawled into the shore, according to the BBC. It was the letters SOS. As many of us know, that combination of letters is an internationally recognized distress signal.
The joint rescue operation appeared to have made a major breakthrough in the search for the three missing Micronesians. Or, at the very least, they had stumbled upon others in need of urgent help. The distress signal was clearly written in the hope that a passing plane or helicopter would take note of it.
Tellingly though, there was also a boat used by the sailors to the right of the SOS message. Surely, then, this was the three men they’d been looking for all along. There was only one thing left to do, and that was for the Australian military helicopter to land and find out.
The chopper lowered itself on to the sandy shore, and there they were: the three Micronesian sailors who had been missing for three days. The men had been found on the isolated landmass known as Pikelot Island in the Federated States of Micronesia. Incredibly, they were 190 kilometers from their planned destination.
The Micronesian sailors’ 23 foot-long boat had depleted all of its available fuel, according to the U.S. and Australian authorities. As a result, this saw it stray badly off route and eventually wash up on the unoccupied Pikelot Island. The Australian Defence Force remarked that the three men were in “good condition” when they approached them and confirmed their identities. Furthermore, it added that they had no significant injuries or ailments.
The Aussie chopper brought with it supplies of drinking water and food for the sailors, which naturally would have been well-received. A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 also reportedly threw down a radio so that the sailors could correspond with a Micronesian patrol boat coming from the island of Yap.
The fortunate sailors were later transported to their home island of Pulap by the Micronesian patrol vessel. However, this heartwarming rescue story very nearly didn’t take place, as KC-135 pilot Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen revealed in a Facebook post. He wrote, “We were toward the end of our search pattern. We turned to avoid some rain showers and that’s when we looked down and saw an island…”
Palmeria-Yen continued, “… So we [decided] to check it out and that’s when we saw [the] SOS and a boat right next to it on the beach. From there, we called in the [Australians] because they had two helicopters nearby that could assist and land on the island.”
Australian Navy captain Terry Morrison also revealed his pride in the rescue operation. According to the BBC, he said, “I am proud of the response and professionalism of all on board as we fulfil our obligation to contribute to the safety of life at sea wherever we are.” They – plus their American and Micronesian counterparts – certainly did that, as U.S. Coast Guard captain Christopher Chase alluded to in a written statement.
The commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam wrote, “Partnerships. This is what made this search-and-rescue case successful. Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save three members of our community and bring them back home to their families.” Undeniably, the operation was a major success. And you get the impression those three stranded sailors and their next of kin will forever be grateful to the international partnership for their heroic rescue.