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Rescued youths recount experiences in the snow


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A squealing, shrieking, joyous pack of Michigan teen-agers welcomed the arrival of 21 bandana-bedecked classmates and three teachers rescued yesterday from the snowstorm that plundered the Great Smoky Mountains over the weekend.

"I'm so overwhelmed," said Jennifer MacKenzie, 15, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., moments after falling into the tight embrace of her parents, who drove all night from Michigan. "I've never been through so many emotions. I've laughed so much, I've cried so much, I can't believe it."

Two military helicopters hoisted Jennifer and 15 other hikers from the Cranbrook Kingswood school aboard for the flight to National Guard headquarters in Knoxville at about 2:30 p.m. from the Hazel Creek area near Fontana Lake in North Carolina.

"I thought my arms were going to be ripped off," Jennifer recalled. "I held on for dear life."

The happy group later marveled at fast-food restaurants along Route 129 and started singing the Taco Bell commercial jingle as they were driven on a bus to a nearby Red Cross shelter.

The remaining hikers -- French teacher Jim Meehan and seven students -- were plucked dramatically from the ground as darkness descended on Smokemont, the isolated area where they were discovered.

"I feel good, a lot better now," an obviously drained Remy Lobo said as he climbed from the helicopter in Cherokee, N.C. The slightly grinning, bandana-clad teen-ager from Bloomfield Hills said: "It was 4 feet of snow. It was up to about here."

The only two who were not to travel home by bus early this morning were student Danielle Swank, 15, of Libertyville, Ill., and math and English teacher James Woodruff. The two were among the only members of the party to suffer serious injury. They were hospitalized with frostbite at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

The jubilant Cranbrook Kingswood students were among the last hikers out of the park. Of the 150 to 200 campers trapped by the storm, rescue workers said, 13 remained unaccounted for. The search for them is continuing.

The dramatic rescues brought to a close the rescue operation that had transfixed the nation since Sunday. The 117-member Cranbrook Kingswood party's annual wilderness survival outing started off uneventfully March 2 but took a frightening turn when the worst snowstorm in a century pounded the mountains.

In Bloomfield Hills, cheers exploded from the dining hall at the private school as parents celebrated their children's rescue.

"I'm such a proud mom," said Lorenza Acker, jubilant mother of Christopher, 16. "I know these kids stayed together and made it; I know they've really grown up. I hope he comes home and says he loves the mountain and he wants to do it again. . . .

"They were looking for a great adventure, and they got it. They certainly had the adventure of their life."

All 24 hikers found yesterday were reported to be in good health -- if a bit humbled by their experience.

"I've come out so different, changed," said Tyra Andrews of Southfield, Mich. "You have so many luxuries. . . . You hear about hunger, homelessness, being cold, and you can't relate. Now you can relate so much."

Student Abby Henderson said: "I feel like I've been to hell and back. It's a lot better when you have other people to be with. My friends helped me through."

Several students chronicled the ordeal in journals, where their thoughts invariably turned to loved ones.

In an entry Monday, Abby wrote to her father: "I'm happy I did this. You realize how much you need your family. . . . You can't manipulate nature."

The students rescued yesterday said they spent their days trekking through snow-covered trails and wading in water up to their thighs. They ate pizza, cheesecake, pancakes and hash browns on a portable stove. At night, they played cards and sang to keep their flagging spirits up.

"The nights were the worst," said Jessica Rubin, 16. "It's dark; it's cold; people were crying. We knew somebody would come get us. We just didn't know what was going on. All we could do was sit there and wait."

And play euchre, the card game of choice. The most popular songs: "The Joker," by Steve Miller, "Two Princes," by the Spin Doctors and, appropriately, "Alive," by Pearl Jam.

The three groups rescued yesterday were not far apart on the North Carolina side of the park when the storm struck Friday. They were scheduled to climb north over the weekend, cresting the Appalachian Trail and descending toward separate campsites in Tennessee by Monday evening. The groups were then to converge at Elkmont, where they began their adventure, yesterday morning.

But the fierce storm apparently forced the groups to turn back before crossing the mountain summit.

"We had to keep crossing rivers," said Jennifer VandeWalle, 16. "One of our people fell in. She got really cold. We set up camp. Then we decided to see if we could find a trail. Several people were on the verge of hypothermia. We weren't getting anywhere. We couldn't find a trail."

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