Police rescue lost hiker by glow of cell phone

Christopher Tkacik, lost in the dark in a state park on Catoctin Mountain, had his dog, iPhone and a slowly draining battery. He could talk to the police trying to find him, but neither they nor the GPS on his smart phone could guide him out.

So the 43-year-old attorney from Mount Airy turned on the device's flashlight and held it in the air. A trooper in a Maryland State Police helicopter, using night vision equipment, saw the "faint glow" from the phone Saturday night and found the lost man and his dog.

A grateful Tkacik, after spending more than seven hours in the 1,137-acre Gambrill State Park in Western Maryland, made it out safely and in time to take his wife to a New Year's party.

"It was amazing," said Tkacik, the associate general counsel for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I hike an awful lot. I've never been lost." He said he finally called 911 "when I realized I wasn't going to get off this mountain before it gets pitch black."

The rescue was not only an ordeal for Tkacik, but also for the state police, who were interrupted in their search by a critically injured motorist in a motorcycle crash in Frederick that delayed the hiker's pickup for hours.

"It was a really tight area with lots of small trees," said Trooper Joshua Chasen, who was riding in the Eurocopter Dauphine, piloted by civilian Luca Roseario. A chopper from the U.S. Park Police shined a spotlight down as two firefighters were lowered 150 feet by rope. They walked the hiker 1.5 miles out of the park.

Tkacik said he and his dog Boo started hiking a little before 1 p.m. The park has more than 16 miles of trails, all color-coded and noting degrees of difficulty. Tkacik said he had a map and praised the clear directions. He set off on the Yellow Trail, which like nearly all the others, loops around to bring hikers back to the parking lot.

But after walking about 8 miles, Tkacik said he mistakenly got onto the blue path, which he thought would also go back the starting point. But the blue is part of the federal Catoctin park, and it veers off northward for 27 miles.

When Tkacik walked into a valley and encountered a stream he had not seen before, he knew he was lost. It was about 5:30 p.m. and nearly completely dark. He called 911 and got the Frederick County sheriff's office, but they and park workers could not determine where Tkacik was.

His best bet was to stay put and let police come to him.

The first state police helicopter took off from Frederick, and it was a trooper in that one who managed to find Tkacik with his cell phone light. But that chopper had to rush to the motorcycle accident. Another helicopter was dispatched from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

That chopper, with Chasen and Roseario, had to stop to get a hoist and pick up the two firefighters — Alex McKenna and Kurt Hornicek of the Independent Fire Company. Then it flew to where Tkacik was waiting.

The firefighters were lowered and, with the help of the spotlight from the U.S. Park Police helicopter, walked the relieved hiker to safety. It was now 8 p.m.

Chasen said that police were in touch with Tkacik throughout the ordeal. "He wasn't hurt, so we were definitely taking our time," Chasen said, noting the difficulty of the terrain. "I don't blame him for wanting to stay where he was."

Tkacik said he wants to go back to the park "to see the paths and see what I did wrong." He quipped, "I think my wife will let me go hiking again, but I'm not sure the dog will cooperate with me."


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