Two couples and a young boy were hoisted out of the Cook Inlet mud flats Saturday night by rescue helicopter after both their Jeeps became stuck in the notoriously treacherous muck as the tide rushed in.
The rescue was especially complicated because they were on Joint-Base Elmendorf Richardson in an old firing zone where there's a risk of setting off unexploded ordnance, said Sgt. Edward Eagerton, a spokesman for the Alaska National Guard. The area is marked as off-limits, he said.
The first husband and wife took their Jeep for a fun ride Saturday evening along Route Bravo Road on base, Master Sgt. Richard Matteson, an Air Force battalion chief with the 673rd civil engineering squadron, said in a written narrative released by the Alaska National Guard.
"People will go back there in their 4-by-4s and kick up a lot of dust," Eagerton said in an interview. "You are not supposed to deviate from the roads and just kinda go do your own thing. Each of those areas are controlled ranges, and in order to enter those areas, you have to get permission from range control."
The National Guard didn't immediately release the names of either couple and Eagerton, reached after hours, said he didn't have access to their names. He said he didn't know if they were military members, contractors or civilians, but said they were authorized to be on base.
When they got stuck in the muck, they put out a call for help on Facebook, according to Matteson, who served as incident commander during the rescue. Their friends responded in their own Jeep, bringing along their 5-year-old boy.
By 8 p.m., a nearly 30-foot high tide had come in.
"The occupants of the first Jeep abandoned their vehicle when the rising tide submerged it," the National Guard account said. "They took refuge in the second Jeep, stuck further back in the mud."
Authorities were alerted. Matteson and security forces came to the scene. They had to figure out how to extract five people from "a munitions impact area" that now was under water.
"The risk of encountering and potentially detonating unexploded ordnance would factor in how the rescue mission would unfold," the National Guard said.
The boy was getting cold. The tide rose to the doors of the second vehicle, and water was flooding in, Matteson said.
An Army explosive ordinance disposal team needed to clear a safe route but couldn't until the water receded, Eagerton said.
"We thought about leaving them in the vehicles for the night until (the disposal team) could clear a route, but the 5-year-old boy began showing signs of hypothermia and we knew we had to get them out of there," Matteson said, according to the Guard account.
The JBER fire department alerted Alaska State Troopers, who contacted the 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, which around 9:40 p.m. agreed to help.
At 11:12 p.m., the Alaska Air National Guard launched a Pave Hawk helicopter with pararescuemen on board.
The rescue team hoisted the four adults and child out of the second vehicle and flew them to the JBER hospital. They were checked over and released.
On Sunday, the Army explosive ordnance disposal team cleared a route to the vehicles as well as a 500-foot buffer zone. The vehicles were towed out of the flats. Eagerton said the first Jeep was moved around by the tide. He didn't know if either one would start, but both appeared water damaged.
The couples were not prepared for what they encountered, Matteson said. They were wearing jeans and T-shirts. They had no survival gear. Eagerton said he didn't know how long they had been in Alaska.
"The biggest thing is you have to know where you're at," Matteson said. "You should always know if you're in a safe and opened area, and you need to be prepared."
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390. Reporter Zaz Hollander contributed to this story.