Fuel shortages and a lack of communication stalled an early-morning rescue operation to find three victims lost after their backhoe overturned in the roiling waters of Tonto Creek on Jan. 4.
Bad weather and treacherous conditions, according to Gila County Sheriff's Lt. Adam Shepherd, left rescue workers with one option: rescue by air.
Maricopa County Sheriff's Office helicopter and a Department of Public Safety Ranger helicopter rescued one person from the waters shortly before 2 a.m.
After that, Shepherd said, the rescue operation was halted because one helicopter had mechanical problems and fuel was in short supply.
Flying into the Payson airport to refuel was not possible because of the weather so the sheriff's office began looking for a way to have fuel brought to Tonto Basin.
Being the closest fuel source, Payson was the first call at 12:26 a.m. and another at 1:51 a.m. with no response. When an answer came at 2 a.m., Shepherd said the sheriff's dispatcher was told that the privately-run fueling operation at the airport, Payson Aviation, did not have a way to transport the fuel to Tonto Basin.
"We had to have fuel brought out of the Valley and that cost us some time," Shepherd said.
Four hours later, fuel arrived, and later that morning, rescue crews located the body of one of the two missing men. The following day, they found the other. Both bodies were retrieved from the same area where the first person was rescued.
A hitch with the fuel truck
Payson Aviation owner Bob Oswald said his fuel truck is not licensed to leave airport property and the Payson Police Department had threatened to cite him if it was on a public road.
"They are not made for public road use and I didn't feel it was the prudent thing to do to drive such a truck down the big hill into Tonto Basin on that cold, wet, foggy, slippery night," Oswald said.
Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner said his department was unaware of what was going on in Tonto Basin and would have assisted Oswald in finding a way to transport the fuel truck to the operation.
"In an emergency, I think we would have tried to find a way to make it happen," Gartner said. "If he had called, we would have figured out an option to bring the fuel truck down."
Airport manager Ted Anderson said there are three methods of transporting fuel in an emergency.
"If the vehicle is not registered, then what you do is ask permission to drive it on the road or ask an escort to take you down to where you need to go," Anderson said. "If you have a vehicle that is not really road worthy, have it transported by another vehicle -- a wrecker or trailer such as a lowboy that could carry you down to where you need to go."
Oswald said driving 1,200 gallons of helicopter fuel in his fuel truck in poor weather would have been a risk to his employee and the public that he was not willing to take.
"They did offer to bring a large lowboy trailer," Oswald said. "That would have been an option. Nobody was keeping us in the loop on the decision-making process."
Future facilitation of rescues
Mayor Barbara Brewer said the town council needs to find a solution for emergency personnel to get fuel in a timely manner.
The problem is, according to Brewer, the town doesn't own the fuel. Payson Aviation does, and until now, the council hasn't been able to sign a contract with Oswald because he's involved in an unrelated lawsuit against the town.
"I have asked the town attorney (Sam Streichman) if it is possible to put it in his contract that he be required to respond to emergencies and he said we could put anything we want in a contract," Brewer said. "If the town had its own fuel truck then whoever is operating the fuel operation could be licensed to drive the truck to an emergency operation."
The price of preparedness
Mitch Sacco, assistant to the director of maintenance at Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, said the cost of a new fuel truck is between $60,000 and $70,000; license and registration are an additional $650 a year, and that's if the truck is already street legal.
Meanwhile, Oswald said Payson Aviation is responsible for fueling aircraft at the Payson Airport.
"We are to be available 24/7 to fuel aircraft at the Payson Airport, which is what we do," Oswald said. "Public safety, such as supplying the logistical needs of a rescue at the site of the rescue, is the responsibility of the government. I cannot think of any examples of a private business required to make such extremely expensive equipment available to public safety entities such as DPS."
Rescue delays not a new issue
Other emergency aircraft operators have experienced delays in getting fuel after hours at the Payson Airport, Brewer said.
"I saw it on two different occasions where Native Air has waited for over an hour for someone to come out and give them fuel," Brewer said. "They landed, made a phone call and nobody showed up for over an hour."
Anderson said Native Air, which transports critically ill or injured patients to trauma centers, has asked whether they could stage their own fuel truck at the airport.
The Civil Air Patrol also has experienced delays in refueling after hours and has requested the airport install a self-fueling island.
"There are times when it is hard to get a hold of them and it impedes the mission if you can't get an aircraft refueled," Civil Air Patrol Commander John Varljen said. "Eighty percent of the time, there is after-hours fueling at the airport --it's the other 20 percent we worry about."
Brewer said the town council needs to explore some of the options that could assist emergency responders who use the airport or need airport services after hours.
"We should do whatever it takes," Brewer said. "Something needs to be done sooner than later."