Police officers and firemen from three area towns and Massachusetts State Police air responders were called to a rescue two off-trail hikers who became stuck in a swamp in the Manchester Essex woods Tuesday, March 23rd. The afternoon rescue took several hours of coordination between state and local safety officers and involved drones, helicopters and all-terrain vehicle before the couple emerged on their own with the help of two Manchester and Essex police officers.
The couple, in their 60s, had gone on a hike in the Manchester Essex woods. Deep into the vast wooded area that straddles Manchester, Essex, and Hamilton, the couple hit a swamp area (behind the Manchester transfer station, and near the Hamilton Rod & Gun Club) and became disoriented. They walked back and forth and around the swamp, looking for a familiar marker to guide them back and when they found none, they called 911. The Manchester Police dispatch desk received the call, and because they registered the call as coming from the town of Essex, said Manchester Police Chief Todd Fitzgerald, the call was immediately sent to the Essex County Regional Dispatch in Middleton, which handles Essex calls.
That was just before 2 p.m. Police and fire from Manchester, Essex and Hamilton were dispatched to the area of Cathedral of the Pines after the report was that two hikers had become “stuck” in a swamp. But in reality, the couple was stuck (as in lost) and located in the swamp area and became stranded. That was good news, said Essex Police Chief Paul Francis.
“We thought initially the couple may have been injured and it was soon clear they weren’t. But the challenge was finding them,” said Francis. “They were very deep into those woods, where there are numerous paths that go for miles. It was a challenge.”
Responding units determined that the hikers had entered via a walking trail behind Cathedral of the Pines off School Street. First responders from all three towns searched the trails for the hikers, assisted by the recently launched Manchester Police Drone Unit and an all-terrain vehicle and the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing.
Essex Police Sgt. Dan Bruce and Manchester Police Lt. Mark McCoy located the hikers, who were not injured, and guided them back to the main trail and out to their vehicles.
“It was a joint effort,” said Sgt. Bruce. “When we found them, the two were obviously happy to be found. They did the right thing, and were smart by staying put as soon as they realized they were lost.”
This was key. The couple remained in the same spot once they called for help. Bruce said the Essex County Regional Dispatch Telecommunicator Sean Cullen coordinated resources and technology from the state’s perspective. This included GPS pinging technology, where the dispatcher knew the locations of the lost couple, the officers seeking them, and was able to guide them. This, along with the Massachusetts Air Wing helicopter, ensured the couple was found just before 4 p.m.
The truth is, said Francis, the outcome could have been different. Outdoor enthusiasts commonly caution early Spring hikers to be careful of hard-to-see hazards. At this time of year, the weather can be deceptively mild, and can turn quickly. Often, spring hikers are under-dressed and overly optimistic of their abilities. Even local hikes that seem harmless, like hiking deep into the Manchester Essex woods, can become dangerous.
In the end, the collective rescue team drew from the Manchester-by-the-Sea Police and Fire Departments, the Essex Police and Fire Departments, the Hamilton Police and Fire Departments, Beauport Ambulance, Essex County Regional Dispatch, and the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing all provided support during the search and rescue.
“This is a clear example of interagency cooperation bringing about a successful outcome,” Chief Fitzgerald said. “It was a really good effort by a lot of people.”