KHOU in Houston got a firsthand look at some of the best trackers in the U.S.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas — It’s a story we have been following for months and we’re finally getting a firsthand look at some of the best trackers in the country. Their mission was to find a woman who was lost in Big Bend National Park.
The park is bigger than Chicago, Los Angeles and New York combined — a West Texas treasure so remote with very little cell service. The park is bigger than Rhode Island. Fortunately, experienced trackers were able to find her eight days after she went missing.
That group of trackers shared their experience with us.
Big Bend National Park is known for its natural beauty, rugged terrain and stunning views.
“They come here to camp, climb mountains, photograph wildlife,” Park Ranger Tom VandenBerg said.
With about 500,000 visitors each year, many are looking for adventure.
“A whole lot of land to get lost in,” Jesse Thomason said.
Thomason is a Border Patrol Agent who works and lives at Big Bend. In November, a Houston-area hiker did just that — got lost at the park.
“We received a phone call from her family that had not returned to work,” VandenBerg said.
Christy Perry, 25, was reported missing on Nov. 14.
“They weren’t even sure if she was in Big Bend National Park,” VandenBerg said.
Her family did some digging and told Park Rangers that Perry flew into Midland, rented a car and drove to Big Bend on Nov. 9.
“We realized that individual had been lost for days before we even heard about it. She was alone and perhaps the first time in Big Bend,” VandenBerg said.
Border Patrol agents who live in the park said they remembered the odd conditions of the rainy days in the desert.
“There came some fog and it was pea soup — you could not see your hand in front of your face,” Thomason said.
They said Perry found herself lost, ironically, along the Lost Mine Trail — one of the most popular trails in the park.
“When it was time to come back down, I think she probably got misplaced the trail. Headed off in a different direction,” VandenBerg said.
So, on the afternoon of Nov. 14, five days after she was reported missing, crews began the search.
“We were worried about the mortal safety of this individual,” Philip Winston said.
Winston is the Border Patrol Supervisor for the Big Bend substation. It was all hands on deck.
“We had everyone from Border Patrol to maintenance workers on the trail looking for this woman,” Winston said.
The National Park Rangers called for help from the best trackers in the state.
“We looked through the rental car she had seen what evidence there was in there. Make sure there was no evidence of foul play,” TPWD Sgt. Isaac Ruiz said.
Ruiz is also a K-9 handler and said evidence from the car helped Mae, the 2-year-old K-9 officer, follow Perry’s scents up the mountain. They were divided into teams to do segmented searches.
“The incident command set up a GPS app on their phone to show what areas to cover,” Ruiz said.
The GPS kept track of all the areas searched and what needed to be done but despite the technology, it wasn’t an easy task for the trackers.
“It’s all cliffs, drop-offs, and brush and cactus and deep canyons. They had been searching for the most likely places they could end up. But it’s a big big area up there,” VandenBerg said.
They were long 15-hour days full of scouring the area.
“We left in the morning … didn’t come off the mountain until we were dead on our feet,” Thomason said.
They were looking for footprints or any clues to follow. They knew the clock was ticking because of the late start and even reached out for help from DPS trackers on the chopper.
They have won awards for being the best in the country.
“It comes with time. Like I said, we have been doing it for 17 years. It takes a while,” Lt. Jimmy Morris, with the AirOPT division in the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.
The winds weren’t helping the choppers get close to the mountain.
“We had 25- to 40-mile gusts in the mountains. It was really hard to fly,” Lt. Ed Mayfield, with the Aircraft Division in the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.
On the 8th day of her disappearance, Nov. 15, hope was scarce. That was the day the cadaver dogs and drones arrived.
“All of us, to be honest, were thinking recovery. I hate to say that, but we were,” Mayfield said.
“They heard faint screams coming from the ravine. And were able to locate her from that,” Winston said.
Crews were able to quickly get to her.
“The first thing in my mind … holy crap there she is. She is walking and in remarkably good condition to be in the wilderness for a week,” Thomason said.
But she was in such a tough spot so they had to carry her to an area where the DPS chopper could safely pick her up.
“It was a very challenging spot where we landed up there. Everything about that mountain is challenging,” Mayfield said.
They picked her up and flew her to the Chisos Basin, a spot where Border Patrol paramedics evaluated her.
“She was completely alert and oriented. Had all her facilities abate. That was amazing. She just said, ‘I am hungry, tired, sore, cold.’ That is about all she said,” Thomason said.
After she was evaluated by agents, Perry was reunited with her father. It was an emotional moment.
“Her father was here he came said hi to her and they broke down. That is understandable,” Thomason said.
Perry was found with a backpack, a small jacket, and a few water bottles. So, how did she survive so many days and nights alone in the wild? As it turned out, the unexpected storm and fog were a blessing.
“She was able to find a source of water in an area that doesn’t have water,” VandenBerg said.
She stayed put and that puddle water helped her get through it.
“Never again I will never doubt human ability again,” Mayfield said.
Perry didn’t want to take part in the story but she sent this statement: “I’m grateful for the search and rescue team for saving my life. Everyone on the team was extremely friendly. Made sure I was comfortable and provided food and clean water. I was impressed by the team’s efficiency.”
Perry was flown to a hospital in Odessa where she recovered and was released.
“Pretty amazing,” VandenBerg said.
“She was very lucky, very lucky we found her when we did,” Thomason said.
Her family and search crews’ prayers were answered.
“Thank God ultimately thank God,” Ruiz said.
And adventure they believe she will never forget.
“Her will to live is amazing,” Mayfield said.
Perry is very lucky to have survived. Experts said she did what was smart, she stayed put and waited for help. And most importantly found a water source.