Search teams locate missing man
Almost a year to the day of a rescue operation that made Green Bank the focus of national attention, search teams located a National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) employee, who went missing the day before.
On February 18, 2010, a Navy helicopter carrying 17 troops crashed atop Back Allegheny Mountain. After struggling through deep snow, rescuers successfully evacuated the stranded troops the following day.
On February 17, 2011, rescuers located Green Bank resident Richard Prestage, who went missing while hiking on NRAO grounds the previous morning.
Prestage is a former site director at NRAO Green Bank and was appointed head of the Department of Technical Services for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array project in June 2008.
The scientist went hiking on the 2,500 acre NRAO grounds about 8 a.m. Wednesday morning and did not show up for a 10:30 a.m. work appointment or a noon lunch date with his wife.
Bartow-Frank-Durbin Fire and Rescue (BFDFR) and the Pocahontas County Sheriff's Department began a search that afternoon. Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue (SFFR) assumed control at 7:30 p.m. SFFR fire chief Shannon Boehmer, commander of the successful helicopter rescue, assumed command of the search operation.
The fire chief focused on a 1,200 acre area where Prestage was known to hike. He divided the area into sectors and assigned six-person teams to each sector. Through the night, when temperatures dropped below 30 degrees, approximately 50 searchers scoured the hilly terrain north of the giant telescope.
The search team grew to 84 personnel the following morning, with NRAO providing most of the volunteers. Other units arrived to help, including Cass Fire and Rescue, West Virginia State Police, a Barbour County K-9 squad and Mountaineer Area Search and Rescue. County emergency services director Melvin Martin assisted with communications. Two aircraft were assisted with the search: a state police helicopter and a private airplane.
BFD fireman and NRAO employee Philip Doolittle flew the private plane, the first aircraft in the sky for the search operation. Doolittle rented the plane Thursday morning at the Elkins Pilot Club and paid the entire $210 tab for a three-hour rental.
Doolittle, who participated in last year's helicopter rescue, said he wanted to help find his colleague and added, "I look for any excuse to go flying."
Friend Ron Topper and fellow BFD firefighter Mike Carpenter flew along to provide more eyes in the sky.
Ultimately, it was a foot team that located the missing scientist.
About 1 p.m., 29 hours after Prestage started his hike, Search Team 1, consisting of Galen Watts, Carla Beaudet, Rick Zeigler, Tony Minter, Tim Weadon and Bob Anderson found Prestage, apparently misoriented, lethargic from mild hypothermia, but otherwise uninjured and able to walk out with the rescuers.
Boehmer said the search technique helped make it a relatively quick search.
"We broke the entire property into quadrants," he said. "From those quadrants, we basically assigned the importance of those quadrants and the likelihood of a find
and we focused on those quadrants first, which made our search pretty quick and much more concise."
"It was an outstanding job by everybody," he added. "Everybody that was involved did a great job."
NRAO site director Karen O'Neil said operations at NRAO were significantly impacted by the search operation, but that "life and limb" take priority over everything else.
O'Neil said she was thrilled with the positive outcome.
"We saw this last year with the helicopter crash and we see it again," she said. "Folks here are amazing - absolutely amazing. The result was as good as we could possibly hope for. We're thrilled. The volunteers were amazing. Any volunteer team here could hold their own with any professional team here. We see it again and again."