The eight-hour search for the source of a wayward beacon signal Tuesday along the Savannah River did not yield a downed plane, but Columbia County officials said it did provide first responders valuable training in beacon tracking.
Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Danny Kuhlmann (right) meets with Rusty Welsh, the deputy director of Columbia County's Emergency Management Agency, along a River Island road in Evans, during the search for the source of an emergency signal Tuesday.
Photo by Valerie Rowell
"It was excellent training using the beacon finders," Pam Tucker, the county's Emergency Management Agency director, said Wednesday. "This was a total unknown, using equipment that you certainly don't use but every five or six years. To be able to track down something that is beeping, but you can't hear it, with this device that can tell you where it is, it was fantastic training.''
Tucker's office received a call from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency Operations Center at about 1:20 p.m. Tuesday with a message that the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center detected an aircraft beacon coming from an area less than a mile north of Blackstone Camp Road in Evans.
Several agencies responded to locate the source of the beacon, including the Civil Air Patrol, Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue, the county's Emergency Management Agency and Engineering Services Division, Gold Cross' AirMed helicopter and the Columbia County Sheriff's Office ATV Ready Unit.
"It was totally unannounced," Tucker said. "It popped in on us out of the blue in the afternoon. And look how well organized everybody was.''
Tucker said she had dealt with five similar situations in her 27 years in emergency management, and all turned out to be something other than a downed plane.
After nearly eight hours of searching in the rain for the beacon's coordinates Tuesday in a heavily wooded area in and around the River Island Settlement subdivision, searchers on the ground and a helicopter crew found no evidence of a downed plane.
"Like (Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue Chief) Doug Cooper said, 'It has got to be the principle of the thing. We're hearing it and we're going to find it,'" Tucker said.
Emergency officials used handheld beacon detectors to track the signal to the garage of a home on Sawbuck Way in the Hamilton Crossing subdivision on Mullikin Road. The beacon belonged to Chad Derek Prichard, of Columbia, a recreational pilot who left the beacon in his girlfriend's garage.
"This is the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life," J.H. Harris, of the Civil Air Patrol, said early in the search as he used handheld detector, trying to trace the signal that ebbed stronger and weaker in different areas, making it difficult to track.
Tucker said the search team contacted Prichard, who was in Columbia, S.C., at the time. She said he told authorities he had the beacon in the garage and had recently changed the battery, and that an item in the garage fell on the device, turning it on.
"He was very, very, very apologetic," Tucker said. "He felt really, really bad. He hurried home as quick as he could to turn it off. ... It was an accident.
"Again, we got very valuable training from it."
Tucker said pilots often have the beacon devices, which can be purchased at places such as Fort Gordon's surplus sale.
Tucker said that just like bomb threats, each beacon must be taken seriously.
"You have got to treat it as if there could be an aircraft down and there could be somebody hurt that needs your help," Tucker said. "They were determined. I don't think they would have rested good not knowing for certain and with the possibility there could have been a plane down somewhere."
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