ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah — In the evening hours on March 17, two Airmen were hiking through the trails of a national park, when they came across another group of hikers who heard calls for help.
“We heard a safety whistle first and then some screams that sounded far away,” said Senior Airman Matthew Ronnfeldt, 384th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator.
Ronnfeldt grabbed first aid supplies, flash lights and survival blankets from their car, while 1st Lt. Marclauren Galera, 384th Air Refueling Squadron pilot, began looking for a way into the area they heard the screams coming from.
"I told the other hikers to drive to the ranger station or find someone to make a call," Galera said.
Some of the other hikers, two nurses, stayed on the trail to form a line of communications.
As they got closer, climbing through dry river beds and freezing waist-deep water, they heard what Ronnfeldt remembers as “blood curdling screams,” motivating them to move faster.
“It was the worst thing I’d ever heard. It sounded like someone was getting mauled by a bear,” Ronnfeldt said.
By this time, it was getting dark. Galera and Ronnfeldt attempted to swim to those calling for help, but they were blocked by a ledge with more than a 10 foot drop off. They were forced to backtrack and find another route.
"Ronnfeldt went first," Galera said. "He booked it!"
Within five or 10 minutes, Ronnfeldt reached a cliff above the ravine where six climbers were trapped by the freezing waters of Pine Creek Canyon.
“They were really hypothermic,” Ronnfeldt said. “They were in the water trying to get to a dry spot.”
The Airmen used flashlights to guide in rescuers. Galera coordinated with park rangers while Ronnfeldt tried to keep the climbers calm.
“Their presence on that ledge was a huge help to responding rescuers,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, Zion National Park deputy chief ranger.
The climbers were attempting to navigate Pine Creek, a technical slot canyon, which according to Fitzgerald, is usually full of very cold water and requires thick wet suits or dry suits to navigate it safely this time of year.
Rescue attempts began around 11 p.m. By then, it was getting colder and the two Airmen were now trapped by a flash flood. To top it off, they were caught in one of the worst snow storms to hit Zion National Park in two years.
"We were both soaked," Galera said. "I got a little cold, but we started moving around."
Since their escape was blocked, they began thinking of ways to survive the night on the ledge. Thankfully, the two were prepared.
“When they told us we had to stay the night, our Survive Evade Resist Escape training kicked in,” Ronnfeldt said.
The two Airmen relied on survival skills they learned from the U.S. Air Force Survival School to make it through the cold, wet night. Galera made several attempts to start a fire, but had no ignition source. Then he built a lean against shelter using the survival blanket and first aid kit to help shelter them from the snow. By four in the morning they were told it wouldn't be until sunrise that the rangers would be able to get them out.
“We used a knife to start cutting down some branches to separate us from the ground and crawled into a cut out in the rocks,” Ronnfeldt said.
Park rangers were able to provide supplies, like sleeping bags, food and matches to help keep them warm. The two climbed out of their wet clothes and into the dry sleeping bags, started a fire and stayed in touch with the rangers throughout the night and into the next afternoon.
"They were very helpful and professional," Ronnfeldt said. "It was impressive to see the rescue."
All of the climbers were successfully rescued by the rangers, and after spending nearly 17 hours in the cold, Ronnfeldt and Galera were helped out of the canyon by the second team of rescuers around 1 p.m. the next day.
Fitzgerald praised the Airmen for their actions in a letter to the 384th Air Refueling Squadron's commander.
I would like to thank Mr. Ronnfeldt and Mr. Galera for their assistance that night, Fitzgerald said in the letter. It is not often that you find people willing to sacrifice so much for others.
Without the rescue operation, the six climbers may not have made it through the night.
“At least two of the subjects in the canyon were severely hypothermic by the time we got them out,” Fitzgerald said. “I don't believe they would have survived the night and they might not have survived just a couple more hours. Mr. Ronnfeldt and Mr. Galera can be proud that they had a big role in saving their lives.”
Galera and Ronnfeldt's commander responded to the news by rewarding his Airmen.
“I am extremely impressed by the initiative and diligence of these two Airmen,” said Lt. Col. Sean McClune, 384th ARS commander. “Those who serve in uniform have a duty to protect and defend that goes beyond service before self in armed combat.”
They will both receive an Air Force Achievement Medal for their heroic actions.
“Through their actions Galera and Ronnfeldt define what it means to be an Airman, and proud members of the 384th ARS ‘Squarepatchers!’” McClune said.
The climbers, rangers and commander are not the only ones who are thankful.
“By the end it was very uncomfortable, nature is not something to mess with,” Ronnfeldt said. "SERE [training] played a huge role in us being able to survive, and in keeping everyone safe."
"There's always that sense of wanting to help others, and I think that's why most people join the Air Force," Galera said. "It's a feeling of gratitude for being able to help save others' lives."