By Kristin Palpini, The Berkshire Eagle
The 87-year-old man had been missing for more than a day in late autumn in 2015.
The Becket Police Department, state trooper air wing and K-9 units had failed to find him. Rain was pouring down and starting to pool in the Washington backwoods.
Guided by a state police helicopter, a small team of state troopers and members of Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue made their way back into the area. They knew their chances of finding the man alive were narrowing — people found within the first 24 to 52 hours of being lost have the best chances for survival, according to various studies in the National Library of Medicine.
The team spotted the man pinned under a log. He was suffering from exposure and dehydration, but he was alive.
“That one felt really good,” Michael Comeau said.
Comeau, 51, is the president of Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue, an all-volunteer group of about 25 hikers and off-duty or retired emergency responders who can be called upon to assist search-and-rescue or search-and-recovery operations in Western Massachusetts.
Comeau and teammates Stephanie Buzzella and Michael Williamson were honored with a Commander’s Commendation by state police to thank them for their service in rescuing the man.
When someone goes missing in Berkshire County and state and local officials need backup, they call in Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue. The team, founded in the 1970s with a crew of about 100 people, has responded to incidents of live search and rescue, homicide victims, K-9 searches, cold cases, evidence searches/recovery and disaster response.
It’s among few such resources in the region. There also is the Western Massachusetts Technical Search and Rescue Team that specializes in dangerous places, such as a cliff side or cave, where typical rescue equipment isn’t effective.
“They’re a well-trained group, and they adhere to the standards that are set by the [state police] department,” said State Police Lt. Robert Leverone, commander of the department’s special emergency response team. “We’ve used them on multiple occasions, and they’re expert at what they do. They’re very disciplined and organized. They’re a great team to work with.”
Once at the emergency staging area, Berkshire Mountain members get their marching orders from the law enforcement officials in charge and start looking. Using their own equipment, Berkshire Mountain volunteers head into the woods while wearing fluorescent orange clothing and carrying a GPS, compass and radio.
Search and rescue has been around for as long as people have been getting lost. It first was associated with locating men at sea, but has expanded to include urban, mountain, combat and air-sea rescue.
The United States has many organizations at the federal, state and local levels on search-and-rescue teams. Berkshire Mountain has the distinction of being on the Massachusetts State Police resources list.
‘Roller coaster effect’
It’s difficult to say how many people go missing every year in Massachusetts, but the number is fewer than 20 years ago, when Leverone started this work.
“The general population has a cell or GPS and is pretty good at finding their way out of the woods,” he said. “Often, when they don’t come out of the woods, something bad happened, like a hunter falling out of a tree stand and getting injured.”
“Most people that go missing now are people with cognitive issues,” like Alzheimer’s disease, he said.
The National Park Service tracks reports of missing people in its parks, and in 2016 there were 39 people reported missing in Massachusetts parks. In 2017, that number jumped to 53.
Some years have more emergencies than others. In 2017, Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue participated in 16 missions.
“That was a busy year. It’s the roller coaster effect,” Comeau said. “One year, it’s up; the next, it’s down.”
He was part of the search for Joanne “Jo” Ringer, who went missing in March 2017. Her remains were found in Hatfield a year later; police believe that she was killed by her husband, who took his life shortly after her disappearance.
“I went up to Clarksburg 32 times,” Comeau said, shaking his head. “That was a hard one; a sad one.
“But you never know,” he added. “Sometimes you can search for a week and they turn up a few weeks later just fine in Florida — the state.”
Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue recently assisted police in the successful search for a 13-year-old boy with special needs who got lost in Great Barrington’s Fountain Pond State Park, and in recovering the body of a missing Pittsfield man who had been hiking October Mountain in Lenox.
“We’ve worked with them on a number of occasions,” said Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger. “Great Barrington, unfortunately, has had some big search-and-rescue operations in the course of a few years.”
Berkshire Mountain volunteers are “eager to help, and they’re definitely a resource for us,” Burger said. “We typically call them a few times a summer.”
To give an example of how much ground Comeau has covered over the past nine years in Western Massachusetts — either on search-and-rescue missions, training or hiking — he said he has combed every acre along Route 9 from Savoy to Northampton — that’s a 30-mile stretch running through Plainfield, Goshen and Williamsburg.
“There aren’t many places in Berkshire County I haven’t been,” said Comeau, who has a mental map of hidden waterfalls in Western Massachusetts.
“I’ll be driving with my wife, driving her nuts, telling her about all the things on the road, like `Hey that’s dead man’s curve, you know I was down there.’ “
Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue is looking to recruit and train new members, and it is taking its message on the road. This year, the team has attended local Select Board meetings to introduce themselves to officials and explain their mission. They also have attended some sporting and outdoor enthusiast shows in the hopes of attracting new members.
Comeau, whose day job is at Crane & Co. paper in North Adams, said search and rescue can be an exhilarating and surprising calling. But it’s not all saving lost children and helping to crack criminal cases — search and rescue requires a lot of training in between the six or seven calls the team gets in an average year. Berkshire Mountain trains and gets certified by the same program as state police, Northeast Wilderness Search and Rescue Corp.
You don’t have to love hiking to be a search-and-rescue volunteer, Comeau said, but it helps. But not everyone is cut out to be in search and rescue.
“I had this one guy fill out an application — he seemed really interested — then he got to a point on it and was like, `Do we work with cops? I have a problem with cops.’ And I said getting along with the police is pretty important. We’re there to assist them, we train with them.’ He crumpled up his application and walked away.
“That guy was obviously not a good fit, but anyone who wants to do search and rescue should get in touch. Everyone can offer something.”
The group trains each month in the wilderness, and many of its members are nature lovers. Many of them also like to read.
The study of being lost is intense in its specificity. Using years of data, search-and-rescue teams use guides that explain the behavior of the lost person, whether they were out fishing, are children, have Alzheimer’s, went camping — so there are predictable reactions to loss. They know how fast a person can move through a forest based on tree density and the person’s physical abilities. They know how to look at a clean hiking trail and scan the natural environment for anything askew.
Comeau declined to be specific about search-and-rescue techniques — talking about methods could compromise a future investigation, he said.
“I’d like to say something without saying something, you know what I mean?” he said.
Today, the team has about 25 members: four members are EMTs, one is a nurse, one is a veterinary doctor and the others are certified emergency first responders or wilderness first responders.
There also are three large canines — Zenith, Lima and Duke — on the team training in human-remains recovery and air scent identification.
As more requests come in, Comeau said, the team is in need of new recruits and equipment. Berkshire Mountain has an incident support trailer with communications equipment, external power sources, a medical sled and an all-terrain rescue “mule” for patient transport.
Recently, team members Sean Kent and Bill Nylic made a patient transport mule that can be hitched to an ATV. The team is looking for a quality quad to haul the mule.
Comeau said that because Berkshire Mountain is a volunteer group, all funding for materials and training are paid for by members, membership dues, donations and grants from the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office.
“When you go out searching, you hope you find the person alive,” Comeau said, “but there are two types of happy endings: You can find someone alive, and you can find someone who is not, and at least there’s some closure for the family.”
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621.
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