Behind the Scenes of a Large Scale Search

Photo provided by MSAR
Janet Henderson (with coffee cup) at the command post set up during the search for Eugene Jo.


From June 22 to June 29, Montrose Search and Rescue led one of its biggest operations when team members searched for a 73-year-old man who was missing. The incident had a happy ending when the hiker, Eugene Jo, was found alive and well after spending a week in the Angeles National Forest near Mt. Waterman. But leading the operation, which involved 85-plus searchers from Los Angeles County and beyond, was not always easy.

“Normally, in searches like this, we [oversee] one or two days,” said Janet Henderson, MSAR member and lead for the Jo search.

Henderson has been with MSAR for 23 years and has a lot of experience, not only in searching but leading as well. Each month one member of MSAR takes a turn as operations leader, who is in charge of running the searches, collecting information and calling out team members for assistance.

She said generally if the team cannot find the missing person/hiker on the second night of searching, then a call will go out to LA County teams; if it goes longer, then the decision needs to be made whether to issue a statewide call-out.

Henderson said the team thought it would find Jo if not the first day certainly by the next because of the location it was searching. Team members did not think he would have traveled as far as he had.

“We started planning to go statewide,” Henderson said, adding, “If we found him we could always cancel the call.”

But the search went on from two to seven days.

During any search, time is of the essence because those who are lost did not plan to be lost, so they are not prepared to spend a night, or nights, in the forest.

Henderson was also lead for another missing hiker that occurred earlier in the month when a mom and son were attempting to hike/camp the Bear Canyon Trail in Angeles National Forest. They realized the hike was too much so they decided to camp near Switzer Falls. The son hiked back to the car to get the camping gear but the mom left the area, became disoriented and lost her way.

“We didn’t find that [woman] the first night and we were right on top of her. She could hear us calling [out to her] but no one could hear her yelling back,” Henderson said.

Team members found the lost woman. In the search for Jo, the team also had air support but there was a lot of growth in the search area that obstructed the view.

“He was down in Devil’s Canyon. We had sent a team that very first Sunday into the ridge line [of the Canyon],” she said.

Henderson sent teams to the ridge line the next day as well, but there was so much vegetation the area was difficult to search.

The call went out for more support. Henderson said because it is summer many of her team members were out of the area, and she found that other teams had the same challenge. Teams from several areas did show up to help and, on the last day of the search, there were about 85 team members who had responded to the call.

“We had so many people [helping] we were able to divide the area from where we were told was the point of [where Jo was] last seen,” she said.

They were able to saturate the area with a lot of back and forth searches across the track line, she added.

MSAR had not had this large a call-out since the search for a missing hiker from Turkey in 2012. That search lasted several weeks and had a tragic ending when the hiker was found at the bottom of a waterfall.

Henderson knew how crucial it was to find Jo.

“You think he could have fallen, he could have had a heart attack,” she said of the scenarios she considered when planning the search.

She admitted that a search of this size can be a bit overwhelming but the advantage for MSAR was its knowledge of the ANF.

“We always figured if he could stay by a creek he would have water,” she said. “He didn’t have any food or any way of cooking food, but if he had water that would be good.”

Those searching along the wash area would call out but heard nothing in response.

“We kept holding out hope he would be by water,” she said.

The Saturday morning Jo was found started with Henderson arriving at the command center. She greeted all the team members and others who had come to help. They had a quick breakfast then Henderson handed out the assignments.

“Then I had to go to work and [planned] to come back up later,” she said.

Henderson’s day job is as an emergency RN at Huntington Memorial Hospital.

“I was at work in the office when a nurse called me and said Air 5 is coming in with your hiker, and he is fine,” Henderson said. “I got chills.”

It is still a little confusing how Jo walked through so much vegetation and ended up near the creek.

“I guess he just kept hiking down, down, down,” Henderson said.

According to Henderson, Jo had said he did hear the helicopter but not until the last couple of days. He didn’t hear anyone yelling for him until that last day when he heard searchers call and he answered.

Henderson has this crucial  advice for those who go out hiking or camping.

“If you do get separated from your group and you are not sure where you are, stop walking. People always go back to where they last [saw you],” she said. “And carry a whistle and blow it [when you are lost].”