Missing Zion hiker's dropped call offered 'hope' needed to save him, ranger says

A Nellis Air Force helicopter departs Zion National Park after crews rescued 79-year-old John Fiske Burg Saturday. Burg was missing for four days before he was found.

A Nellis Air Force helicopter departs Zion National Park after crews rescued 79-year-old John Fiske Burg Saturday. Burg was missing for four days before he was found. (Zion National Park)


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SPRINGDALE, Washington County — The phone call John Fiske Burg made to emergency services Friday was dropped before he could tell search and rescue crews where he was.

It didn't offer much as to an exact location of where the missing 79-year-old hiker was. But the call revived search and rescue crews' optimism that they could find Burg.

"It infused the entire operation with the hope that he was still alive and in desperate need of help. That gave us the renewed energy to really redouble our efforts the following day," said Zion National Park Chief Ranger Daniel Fagergren, recalling on Monday the search for Burg.

Burg's call — however long it was — ultimately saved his life. By the time searchers located Burg, he was in need of "serious medical attention" and he was immediately flown to St. George Regional Hospital, Fagergren added.

Zion National Park officials didn't provide an update on Burg's condition Monday. Fagergren said Burg has been reunited with his family and that the park's investigative team was able to meet with him at the hospital, as well.

Officials did, however, offer more insight into Burg's disappearance and how they were able to find him.

Burg was reported missing Wednesday after he was last seen the day before. He was with a hiking group that came to southern Utah from Colorado and told his fellow group members that he planned to hike the Canyon Overlook Trail before he left, according to Fagergren.

Manned and unmanned aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base, Washington County and even Grand Canyon National Park assisted in the search beginning Wednesday. While the park received a few tips placing Burg on the trail, Fagergren said the dropped phone call — something he described as "pure luck" — ultimately changed the entire search.

During the brief call, Burg was able to tell emergency dispatch that he was atop a slot canyon. Since there are many slot canyons in the park, that alone didn't provide any real information helpful for the search — aside from the fact that he was alive and somewhere with just enough cellphone service to make a call.

That call led crews to expand their search, which ended Saturday afternoon when a helicopter team from Nellis Air Force base spotted what appeared to be a blue tarp above Lodge Canyon — about 5½ miles from where Burg started. A team of airmen and search and rescue operations specialists was able to load him into the chopper where he was immediately flown to the closest hospital.

As of Monday afternoon, Fagergren hadn't yet spoken with Burg himself or to the team that interviewed him. He didn't know how Burg ended up where he was found. While that is 5½ miles from where he started by map, it's about 7 miles in walking distance with spots where technical skills are needed.

It's not an easy hike at all.

"It's certainly a bushwhack," Fagergren explained. "It's certainly a traverse up some really, really difficult terrain in order to go from where he started to where he was found."

Burg's rescue was a happy ending for search and rescue crews who have been busy all year long.

Visitation to Zion National Park is breaking all sorts of records. More than 4 million people have visited the park, according to park estimates through September. That's less than 500,000 away from the all-time visitation record with three months still remaining in the year.

Fagergren said there have been about 160 major search and rescue calls this year, which is also at a record-smashing pace. There have also been five deaths just over the past few months.

Park officials said many of the cases involve new hikers or people trying to find new trails. Given how busy search and rescue teams have been, Fagergren stressed Monday that it's "really important" hikers don't travel alone or at least tell someone where they plan to hike if they go solo, much like Burg did. He added it's important for hikers to stay as close as possible to the intended trail.

Fagergren said tracking devices are also helpful for solo hikers. Burg did have a GPS tracker with him but it wasn't a new enough model that crews could track him.

Hikers are also encouraged to have adequate supplies on hand in case they become lost, such as food, headlamps/flashlights and warm clothing.

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