Rosh Hashanah Day 1-Search and Rescue

In Tucson I had a congregant who was a pilot and was going to take me out on a Wednesday flight. He called me Tuesday evening to cancel because it was too windy. Impulsively, I thought, “What a great day for me to climb The Window,” a 4,200-foot elevation change climb in Ventana Canyon. I was trail running and made it up to the window (7.2 miles) in record time. I stopped to take pictures of the gorgeous view and then made my way back down. Upon commencing the descent, I realized I was heading down Esperero towards Sabino Canyon rather than the way I came. I turned around but could not find the window and became completely lost. I tried using a hiking GPS, but as someone who is spatially challenged, all it did was kill my phone battery. With 5 percent battery remaining, I phoned my friend Marty and said I needed help. Then I called 911 and attempted to give my coordinates as my phone died.

I waited by a ledge overlooking the mountain, realizing I was completely underdressed, up in the mountains wearing just running clothes, with cold wind permeating every bone in my body. Finally, I saw a helicopter patrolling the area. Excited, I began waving a stick in the air like that scene in The Life of Pi. The chopper didn’t see me and kept on going. The winds picked up, and I became colder and colder. My water and energy bars began running out.

The wind subsided and I did what one is not supposed to do: bushwhacking through brush to a clearing to become more visible. As soon as I reached it, a second helicopter came. I waved frantically, and it saw me. The chopper couldn’t get close enough to me and I heard someone radio in “the Blackhawk.” Half an hour later a Blackhawk helicopter arrived. What noise it made! What dust it kicked up! A rescuer hung down from the helicopter with a rope, reached me, put his legs around mine and then we were pulled up by the rope. We were brought to a base where my vitals were taken. I was told, “You were only 100 yards from the trail.” Go figure. That evening I went to see the play Clybourne Park, as if nothing had happened.

I learned two lessons from this story. One is to never hike alone. The other is that I can never complain again about paying state income taxes (which thankfully I don’t need to do here in Florida). Between three helicopters, one of which cost $1,300 an hour, and two groups of hiker rescuers, one going up Ventana Canyon, the other ascending Sabino Canyon, my rescue attempt must have cost over $10,000 in taxpayer money.

Thankfully our technology has improved since the days when I was search and rescued.

On April 15th, a hiker missing in Los Angeles was rescued after a man cross-referenced a grainy photo of the mountaineer’s foot with satellite images.  Renee Compean, 46 years old, sent a photo to a friend of his legs hanging over a rocky cliff face in the Angeles National Forest to say he was lost, and his cell phone was dying. The friend passed on the photograph to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who posted it to Twitter asking for help locating the missing man.

Using Google Earth and his knowledge of the hiking trails around California, GPS obsessive Ben Kuo was able to narrow down the location of the missing hiker to within a few kilometers. Kuo posted GPS coordinates of a possible location to grateful local search and rescue teams, who located Compean three quarters of a mile away. 

Compean and Kuo met virtually, at which point the hiker expressed his gratitude. ‘I crazy appreciate what you did…I really don’t know if I could make it there another day. It was just so cold,’ Compean told Kuo.[1]

Each of us has been rescued at some point in our life. We have felt that we are on the edge of a cliff, unable to continue forward. In those situations, someone has come to our aid. Perhaps it was a friend with words of wisdom. Maybe it was a stranger who was in the right place at the right time.

Having brought Bar Reuven, a leader in Israel’s elite Search and Rescue unit 669, to speak at Bet Shira, I was very familiar with advanced search and rescue techniques utilized in emergencies. Yet Search and Rescue took on new meaning for me on Thursday June 24th with the collapse of the Champlain Towers South Building at 1:30 am. I still can’t get out of my head the image of Cassie Stratton calling her husband and saying, “Honey, the pool’s caving in!”[2] only to have the line become disconnected immediately after. I saw search and rescue workers doing grueling 12 hour shifts in the heat and rain, as well as putting out fires, and I personally got to meet some of them. These are true heroes-determined not to give up until the last body was found.

I was proud that Israel sent in a team right away along with Mexico, yet of course saddened that only one child was able to be rescued from so many trapped under the rubble of the pancaked building. Having visited the memorial and learned the stories of many of the victims, including the family of Arielle Penias, wife of Extreme Productions CEO Adam Penias, my heart has been broken. More recently we feel bereft by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Haiti seeing over 2200 people killed and watching search and rescue crews from Fairfax County, Virginia, and the country of and Columbia, amongst other places, sifting through the rubble looking for survivors. This past week brought Hurricane Ida, knocking out power to over 1 million in the greater New Orleans area, as well as a levee, with 25,000 clean up crews from over 30 states picking up the wreckage. Its remnants killed dozens in the greater New York City area.

How do we connect to the darkness of Surfside and these other tragic events and disasters, recognizing the truly unprecedented devastation caused by the collapse of a high rise building in the United States? We certainly don’t rationalize it. However, we gather together, spiritually and virtually, as a community, comforting one another. The High Holy Days are times when those of us who have felt lost are able to feel found. While we feel bereft at the tragic loss of life, from COVID, from Surfside, from Haiti and from so many prominent congregants who have passed away, we recognize that we are ultimately here to comfort one another.

 There is hope. Maybe we have doubts that have only grown since our lives were upended in March 2020 and with the proliferation of the Delta Variant, with a number of those hospitalized having been vaccinated. Yet perhaps we have reevaluated our purpose in this moment. Maybe we just need to be patient, calm and steadfast, seeing where 5782 will take us.

 As I reflect on the time when I was rescued by a Blackhawk helicopter, I question what are the Blackhawk helicopters in each of our lives? What are those things that have rescued us from making a bad mistake or those people who have come to our aid? I also think about situations like Surfside, or September 11th, where people ended up being in the wrong place in the wrong time and had no chance whatsoever of being rescued. I’ll never have an answer for why those people were taken before their time. All I can do is thank the first responders, those search and rescue crews, who worked tirelessly day after day in brutal conditions to try to hear a knocking on the rebar or to find a void within the structure. Those who put their lives at risk, like those who go out to battle wildfires such as the Caldor and Dixie Fires, respond to hurricanes like Ida, and earthquakes like that in Haiti, leaving their families at a moment’s notice not knowing if or when they will return. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for all that they do. However, each of us can also be involved in aspects of search and rescue. It might not be sifting through concrete or putting out a fire, yet let us not shortchange when we sit and listen to a friend or a child who is in crisis, using the wisdom of our life experience to help guide them on a good path. We never know when we are a malach, an angel or messenger of God, in the right place at the right time to help a troubled soul. Let us be grateful for those who have been there to rescue us during our times of need, and may we be mindful to be there for others who need us.

Sharon will sing Shema Yisrael by Sarit Hadad. God, please hear our prayers on this holy day and especially at times in our lives when we are broken and bereft.


[1] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-04-15/lasd-finds-hiker-found-safe-in-angeles-national-forest-gps-expert

[2] https://www.insideedition.com/missing-model-called-to-tell-husband-the-pool-was-caving-in-before-miami-building-collapse-67996

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