Dramatic rescue of teachers lost on active volcano after blizzard

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Published On : Thu, Feb 6th, 2014

Helicopter saves three teachers from starvation, hypothermia after storm pegs them to Volcán Llaima mountainside for four days.

Dramatic rescue of teachers lost on active volcano after blizzard

The three teachers used plastic bags to keep warm in the sub-zero temperatures. Photo via III DIVISIÓN MONTAÑA / Twitter

“It’s a miracle to be alive,” exclaimed 53-year-old Silvio Mellado Quintana, one of the three teachers stranded for four days on the slopes of Volcán Llaima, after being saved by a mountain crew Wednesday.

Mellado, Jose Figueroa Carvajal (60) and Miriam Muñoz Aguilera (44) — all hailing from the city of Tomé in the Bío Bío Region — were attempting to scale the volcano when foul weather stumped their progress at 7,215 feet Sunday.

For four gruelling days the trio huddled together and attempted to maintain body heat by draping themselves in plastic bags previously used to carry equipment. Unable to move — hemmed in by aggressive sleet, wind and hail — the teachers clasped their hands together and sought refuge in religion.

“We were very scared and we prayed at all times,” Mellado said.

The threesome only carried enough food and water for one day, anticipating that the journey would take no more than 24 hours. Wearing light clothes and possessing neither sleeping bags nor tents, sub-zero temperatures took hold as the sun disappeared on the horizon.

By rationing what little nuts, chocolate and energy drinks the teachers had left — and drinking snowmelt — they weathered the tempest, all the while hoping their absence had not gone unnoticed by friends and family on lower ground.

However, supplies were depleted after only the first day, further jeopardizing their survival. Hypothermia began to set in.

The alarm was raised when the group failed to return after 48 hours and mountain rescue was called, firing up the helicopter to embark on a search and rescue mission. The Special Police Operations Group (GOPE), armed forces personnel and the Carabineros — Chile’s uniformed police — teamed up in a bid to speed up the rescue.

However, thick clouds hindered attempts to locate the hikers.

“They could hear the helicopter, but could not see it through the clouds,” Gen. Nabih Soza of the Ninth Precinct Carabineros said. Those who had learned of the teacher’s disappearance on dry ground never lost hope though.

“I always had faith that they would appear alive,” Reinaldo Gutiérrez told press, who was forced to retire from the expedition prematurely due to a rib injury. “As a group we have five years of experience climbing various hills and mountains. I am very happy they are with us today.”

Eventually the teachers sighted the helicopter after a break in the weather. The rescue team landed, dressed the teachers in dry clothes and transported them to Temuco Hospital 50 miles southwest of the volcano.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon Mellado, Figueroa and Muñoz arrived at the hospital in a stable condition, according to Dr. Manuel Vial.

“They were perhaps suffering from the mild hypothermia but they were not dehydrated as they had access to a natural source water, which is very good news. We will still have to wait and assess the patients to see how they progress,” he told 24 Horas.

Dr. Vial also explained that the trio showed no signs of respiratory complications and should be reunited with their families within 48 hours — much to the relief of the teachers’ loved ones.

Figueroa’s wife, Gloria Escalona, could not hide her joy after learning of her husband’s safety.

“I am so happy and I thank God because faith was never lost,” she told press. “I am very happy and am grateful for all the people who supported us. I have no words to express how I feel.”

Volcán Llaima is located within the borders of Parque Nacional Conguillío and possesses two summits. An eruption on Jan. 1, 2008 forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from nearby villages. A column of smoke almost 10,000 feet high surged skywards.

People have run into trouble high up in Chile’s mountainous regions before. Argentine Marco Roldán — last seen Jan. 6, 2013 — went missing while hiking to the top of Cerro Tala, a 14,000-foot peak in the popular Elqui Valley in Northern Chile. A search party was unable to find him and his disappearance remains a mystery.

By George Nelson (nelson@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

George Nelson
George Nelson
George was working as a freelance journalist in both San Francisco and Buenos Aires before moving to Chile to work for the Santiago Times. He studied art history and journalism. He enjoys writing on environmental and social issues, and sport.