Things weren’t looking good. After five days of searching and zero clues, a massive search for a missing man in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was at a critical juncture.
“Let’s try to make another hard push for this guy today,” Joe Ponds, a supervisory park ranger, told a group of about 60 search-and-rescuers gathered near a makeshift command center last Thursday morning, March 22.
Searchers were upbeat that today would be the day — the day they would get a break in the search, that they would find their guy or at the very least, a sign that he was still out there.
Marching orders were clear. Check all natural or manmade shelters. Talk to anyone and everyone they saw. Keep their eyes peeled for any leads — such as a reported sighting or a Camel Crush cigarette butt, the brand Derek Lueking smoked.
Following the daily pep talk, nearly three dozen searchers split into 14 teams to begin the sixth day of combing through the densely forested national park where Lueking, 24, of Louisville, Tenn., disappeared that previous Saturday morning.
Hope was still alive that Lueking would be found. The unseasonably warm weather has given him a better chance at survival than typically afforded lost hikers this time of year.
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But, one cannot ignore the fact that by day six, most lost hikers would have already been found. Searchers believed Lueking was ill prepared for an extended trip into the woods, taking nothing more than a daypack with him.
At this point, about 90 percent of missing hiker cases have resolved themselves — either the search team finds the person or they emerge from the woods on their own, said Bob Miller, a spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
There is no set number of days, however, when search crews decide it’s time to pull the plug. As long as there are leads, the park rangers would keep at it.
The search employed both human and dog trackers. The human trackers look for broken branches, footprints or any other signs that indicate that someone had recently traveled through the area.
The rangers gave the dog trackers a whiff of Lueking’s clothing at the start of every day to ingrain them with his scent, which the canines attempted to ferret out in the woods.
But ultimately, the search would be called off the next day, with Lueking still missing.
“It is very disheartening for the searchers to work so hard for so long to find a missing individual without success,” said Dale Ditmanson, superintendent at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As of Friday afternoon, March 23, searchers had not found a single clue, beyond Lueking’s vehicle, that it could conclusively tie to the missing man.
“Without clues, you are just kind of searching in the woods,” said Molly Schroer, a spokeswoman for the park.
Contrary to searches dramatized on television, rangers don’t walk side-by-side in a chain calling the missing person’s name. They have a deliberate road map for how and where they will look.
In most cases, people lost in the woods stay on the trail. It is only a matter of time before park rangers catch up to them, or they find their way to a trailhead.
During the Lueking search, teams hiked about 55 miles of trails that radiate from Newfound Gap, including parts of the Appalachian Trail. Once they checked all the obvious places, the search moved off-trail — making it trickier and more difficult.
Finding a person in a wilderness of half a million acres, steep slopes, thick ravines and rugged rock outcrops is like trying to find a needle in haystack.
The searchers look for “places where it would be appealing to get off-trail,” Miller said. When they see one of those alluring spots, the hikers walk “until it becomes really unpleasant” or rather, reach an area where no human could safely traverse.
As they travel each unmarked route, the rangers denote it on a GIS-based map so the other teams don’t waste time surveying the same area. The maps of where they have been and where they still need to go allow the teams to systematically search the dense forest and ensure that they are doing their best to locate a missing person.
And, rain or shine, the manhunt continues until all the clues dry up. But, even after an official search concludes, rangers will still keep an eye out.
“You never really give up,” Miller said. “People are pretty resourceful.”
When a search is in full swing, the search teams convene every morning at 8 a.m. sharp to review a game plan for the day. Operations are coordinated from makeshift command post set-up at the trailhead where the person was last seen — in this case, the Newfound Gap parking lot on U.S. 441.
In addition to personnel from the national park, searchers from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherokee Tribal EMS and the North Carolina and South Carolina search and rescue dog associations, among others, joined the hunt for Lueking. The North Carolina and Tennessee highway patrols offered helicopter services for several days at no cost to the national park service.
Every day, rangers survey maps to see what areas they have covered and which they haven’t. Tasks are numbered in order of importance and slowly whittled down during the day and in some cases, added to as searchers uncover possible clues.
“Each day, you look at the intelligence and the personal information that the family and others might provide on his behavior,” Miller said.
What land is traversed is just as important to the search as what areas are not. Some parts of the national park are too unpleasant for anyone to hike and get eliminated as a possible route of the missing person.
“You are not searching 90 percent of the land in this situation,” Miller said.
Still, the remaining thousands of acres of wilderness are daunting enough. Given the terrain, a voice hollering for help carries a quarter-mile at best. If the missing person is unconscious, hurt or unable to call for help, it takes a lot of instinct and some luck to stagger upon someone in the vast Smokies.
Each new day gives park rangers an opportunity to follow up on leads that they did not get to the previous day because they had other duties to fulfill. On occasion, rangers will report back a fresh lead or dog hit, when a canine latches on to a scent.
Leaders at the command center will decide if a lead is strong enough to be investigated immediately. In those cases, a group of unassigned rangers will “hot foot” it out to the site of the clue and follow it until it leads to another clue or goes cold, Miller said.
During the Lueking search, a helicopter spotted a tarp near Deep Creek, and a team was quickly dispatched to check it out. But, the equipment looked as if it had been in place for a long time, and there were no signs linking it to Lueking.
If a clue is found, searchers must then put themselves into the lost individual’s boots.
“Where would I go?” Miller said. “A lot of it goes down to looking at the terrain.”
An elderly man is most likely going to travel downhill, taking the path of least resistance, rather battle his way through brush and thicket uphill, the route a younger hiker would likely choose.
“A 14-year-old boy is more likely to bushwhack straight up hill rather than a 60-year-old man,” Miller said.
During the Thursday morning briefing, each speaker emphasized two things — their gratitude to all the searchers and safety first.
“The very first priority in this search is the safety of your searchers,” Miller said.
Everyone was encouraged to partner with someone whom he or she would be responsible for keeping tabs on during the day.
After a full day of hiking without results, the teams return to home base, in this case Newfound Gap, between 5:30 and 6 p.m. The search parties, tired and ragged, are debriefed while the day’s events are still fresh in their minds.
“The result of one day’s activities is the foundation of the next day’s search plans,” Miller said.
One of many searches
The national park conducts anywhere from 80 to 100 searches each year — most of which end happily.
It is unknown how much money was spent searching for Lueking, but $25,000 to $50,000 is not uncommon, Miller said. A three-day, 300-person search for a South Florida boy nearly a decade ago cost $300,000.
Each national park has money set aside for such operations. However, once the cost exceeds $500 per searcher, the park kicks its future costs up the chain to its regional office in Atlanta. For particularly expensive and extensive searches, the Atlanta office will pass costs to a contingency fund dedicated especially for search and rescue operations that can be tapped by any of the U.S. national parks.
The search for Lueking is larger than the average search conducted by the park. A search of this scale only comes around once every three years or so, Miller said.
About 45 national park employees played a part in the Lueking search, along with roughly 15 volunteers. Most of the volunteers spent their time passing out flyers and talking to hikers emerging from or entering trailheads. Volunteers do not usually have the experience required to hike off-trail, which is unmarked, heavily thicketed and sometimes treacherous.
Nearly a decade ago, a 6-year-old boy from South Florida was walking to Clingmans Dome with his family. When he walked off, his family initially assumed that the child was answering the call of nature. But, when he did not return soon after, the park rangers issued an alert and quickly began looking high and low for him.
During the three-day search, some sheriff deputies from South Florida came up to North Carolina to help. Although all the men were strong and fit, they did not last more than an hour on the trails before returning to the command center. Hiking takes a different kind of strength that the deputies did not have had.
“You can’t just take anybody who comes in off the street,” Miller said.
Turns out the young boy had hiked more than 10 miles on the nearby Appalachian Trail before wandering off trail. He was found three days later eating blueberries and drinking water from a stream.