24 missing in snowy Great Smokies THE BLIZZARD OF 1993

March 16, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Racing against the threat of more wintry weather tonight, rescuers will begin anew today their air search for 24 high school students and others trapped in the frigid, snowbound mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.

With night falling, military helicopters that had made more than 120 trips in the rescue effort yesterday had to stop because they couldn't land in the mountains in the dark, said Gerald Powers, a spokesman at Air National Guard base in Knoxville, Tenn.

Twenty-one students and three faculty members from the Cranbrook Kingswood high school in Bloomfield Hills were missing and facing another night in the Smoky Mountains, shielded only by ski parkas, sleeping bags and the tarpaulins they had brought for shelter.

Parents, teachers and friends were hoping that the remaining members of the 117-member party would be found safe today. Rescuers had found 93 by the time yesterday's search ended. Four were in the hospital, including a teacher who was in a hospital intensive-care unit.

Parents, upbeat despite the scarcity of information, kept a tense vigil at the school and in their homes.

At the school, there was hope in the news that those still missing were hiking at lower elevations than those who had been rescued or emerged safely on their own. The weather was not as severe farther down, school officials said.

"All we have to do is find them. We don't have to lay blame," said Ruth Holmes, whose daughter Sarah, a 17-year-old senior, was missing.

The missing hikers faced a fourth night in snow that in some places drifted as high as 5 feet.

Temperatures hovered in the 30s yesterday but were expected to dip to 20 or lower overnight, a serious threat to anyone caught outside for an extended time without shelter, the National Weather Service in Washington said.

The forecast for today is for temperatures in the mid-40s, with increasing cloudiness and a chance of rain or snow tonight.

The hikers had been trained in first aid and wilderness survival, and they were equipped for severe weather. Preparedness has been a key tenet of the school's outdoor program, which since 1970 has offered students a chance to test themselves against the wilderness.

"They were prepared for the worst-case scenario, and we really feel confident they're going to be OK," said Cranbrook spokesman Ray Carson.

The Cranbrook Kingswood students and faculty members were among at least 150 hikers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and adjacent national forests when the blizzard hit Friday night and Saturday.

With the whole area muffled by up to 2 feet of snow, news of the missing and the found was in short supply and often contradictory. Many phone lines were down, and crews had to move storm-felled trees to clear roads to trail heads in the park.

Some of the members of the Cranbrook Kingswood party who were rescued were in good shape and were surprised to find they had been the focus of an intense search.

Two who spoke to their parents by phone yesterday -- Marcy Paisley, 18, and Mark Penske, 16 -- left others in their group Sunday afternoon because some members were struggling with the treacherous hike through deep snow and bitter winds in the Cherokee National Forest, in the Smokies foothills.

Shivering and frostbitten, their pants frozen from fording icy Citico Creek, they said they knew better than to give up. By Sunday evening, the students found a road, and it led them to some fishermen.

"They dried us. They fed us and gave us warm clothes," Ms. Paisley said by phone from Tellico Plains, Tenn., hours after the students and the fishermen were rescued by National Guardsmen. "We knew we had to get help."

One teacher, James Woodruff, 39, was in serious but stable condition in the intensive care unit at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, to which he had been taken by helicopter.

The Cranbrook Kingswood hikers' trip began March 2, when 16 faculty members and 17 upperclassmen left for the park area for a dry run along the trails. Five days later, the rest, all sophomores, left on two buses.

Driving through the night, the sophomores arrived in the Smokies Saturday and the students dispersed throughout the area.

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