More than 25 Rim country firefighters and emergency personnel participated in a complex rescue when lightning killed a hiker and injured his three companions Saturday afternoon on the Mogollon Rim.
The dead man was identified as 66-year-old Valley resident Robert "Woody" Wise, a veteran hiker who had climbed Camelback Mountain in Phoenix more than 800 times. His companions, two women and a man from the Valley, were injured by the strike.
A lightning bolt struck Wise and injured his companions at 2:30 p.m. as they hiked along the Highline Trail 13 miles north of Payson, Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Paul Coe said. The foursome was hiking north along the trail, but turned back to the trailhead when it began to rain and thunder.
About 1.5 miles from the end of the trail, lightning ripped through an 80-foot tree near the hikers. A second bolt traveled through Wise, killing him instantly.
Two of Wise's companions, Nancy Auner and Barbara Wall, were knocked unconscious. The fourth hiker, Don Mowry, was 75 feet ahead of the others, but was still knocked down by the charge.
Mowry performed CPR on Wise, Coe said, but got no response. He then checked on the two women, who were beginning to regain consciousness, before walking to nearby Camp Geronimo for help.
Units from the Pine-Strawberry, Whispering Pines, and Mesa del Caballo fire departments responded, as did the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Unit and the Gila County Sheriff's Department. When commercial helicopter companies refused to fly into the rough terrain, Department of Public Safety Rangers responded by sending two helicopters.
A base for the rescue units was established at the trailhead, coordinated by Mesa del Fire Chief Frank Hansen. ATVs were then dispatched to the accident site with medical personnel and equipment. Other rescuers hiked to the site.
Eventually the two injured women were evacuated by helicopter in baskets suspended by 75 feet of rope. They were flown to a landing zone established at Camp Geronimo.
The more seriously injured of the two was transferred to the other helicopter and flown to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn where a trauma unit is located. Mowry and the second woman were transported by ambulance to Payson Regional Medical Center. All three have now been released.
Wise's body was carried out by rescuers.
"We have a plan for working together in situations like this," Coe said, "and it worked extremely well. All personnel tuned to the mutual aid radio frequency so communications were very smooth," he said.
"People need to realize we get a lot of lightning strikes in this region," Coe added. "While what happened to these people might have been unavoidable, there are basic precautions people should take when lightning might be in the vicinity.
"First, check the weather reports before you even go out," he cautioned. "If lightning is in the area, don't go near trees. Seek a low area and then flatten yourself out on the ground."