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The crew working out of the La Grande offices of
Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative was just finishing lunch when the call came in from dispatch: A guy was stuck in a tree up in the Blue Mountains, 20 miles or so north of town, and first responders needed help getting him down.
At first, it sounded like a routine disruption in the day’s work, according to crew foreman Dan Patton.
“I thought it was someone who climbed a tree and was afraid to come down,” Patton remembers, thinking back on that hot, dry August afternoon more than a year ago. “I expected to see just a guy standing on a limb, up in a tree.”
Patton and one of his crew members, Seth McKern, jumped in the co-op line truck and headed for the scene. The rest of the crew, Blake Eckstein and Al Dockweiler, climbed into the bucket truck and followed.
“That truck’s got a 70-foot boom,” Patton says. “We didn’t know how high the guy was in the tree. You’re going to bring the biggest thing you got.”
As they neared the incident site, a feeling of greater urgency set in. At an intersection on the road leading to the Umatilla National Forest, a frantic hunter flagged Patton down, then waved him onto a rough Forest Service road heading into the woods.
After turning onto an even bumpier forest track, Patton and McKern finally arrived at a clearing already filling up with emergency vehicles and frustrated first responders. Search and rescue teams, sheriff’s deputies, fire captains, and ambulance crews from two counties were huddled in desperate discussions of how to save the life of a lone hunter dangling by his knees from a deer-hunting stand more than 30 feet above the forest floor.
Seventy-year-old Eddie Voelker would say later that he had “probably been up and down that tree a hundred times.” But on this trip, Voelker slipped off his stand and pitched backwards. His foot caught in an anchoring cable and held him fast.
That saved Voelker from a long fall to the rocky ground below. But it left him hanging upside down, unable to pull himself back up, all alone in the deep woods. He hung there for hours before a pair of hunters heard his calls for help.
They summoned first responders, who at first were as frustrated by the situation as the civilian hunters who called them. Back in La Grande, Fire Chief Les Thomas began debating whether to send his department’s ladder truck with its 100-foot boom to the scene.
But municipal fire department trucks are built for city streets, alleys, and parking lots, not the rutted, boulder-strewn two-tracks that wind into the woods. Still, Thomas was about to chance it when one of his emergency medical technicians (EMTs) had an inspiration.
The EMT’s home overlooked the Oregon Trail Electric office in town, and he had seen the co-op’s line crews drilling on hurt man rescues in the pole yard. And like the lineworkers who drive them, co-op trucks are built for rugged, challenging duty. Maybe the co-op could get a bucket truck to the mountain clearing, the EMT suggested, and bring Voelker down.
Arriving in the crew’s pickup, Patton immediately reached for his hooks and belt.
“My first thought was to climb the tree,” he says, so he could rig a block and tackle with a rope sling and quickly lower Voelker to the ground.
But the ambulance crews vetoed the idea. Having hung upside down for so long, they told Patton, Voelker would be at serious risk of “compartment syndrome,” which could cause major organ and internal damage if he were to be brought upright too quickly. They needed the bucket truck, which was still 10 or 20 minutes away, crawling along the rough forest road.
The tree in which Voelker was hanging was on the back edge of a clearing, about 250 yards from the road. Patton and McKern worked with first responders to find and clear a track for the bucket truck. Then they waited.
A hurried tailboard conference took place at the roadside as the co-op crew reviewed the situation, took note of hazards in the truck’s path, and decided who would do what when they got to the tree.
“When we got there, that was the first we had heard of him hanging upside down,” says Eckstein, who was assigned to the bucket. “It was quite a sight. His arms were dangling straight down. I don’t think he could hold them up anymore.”
At the wheel of the truck, Dockweiler knew he could count on his fellow crew members to get into position fast.
“Dan was guiding the truck in so I didn’t hit a boulder or get a flat tire,” Dockweiler says, while McKern was stationed at the controls in the truck bed. “I had barely got the emergency brake on when they had the outriggers down.”
The crew held a second rushed tailboard at the base of the tree, during which the EMTs briefed the lineworkers on the perils Voelker still faced.
“The communication that was going around in that circle was pretty impressive,” Patton says. “Everybody had their spot picked out; everybody had their job.”
As Eckstein maneuvered his bucket upward, his crewmates prepared for his return.
“As soon as I see the bucket move, I am up on the truck,” Patton says. “We know that bucket can’t come all the way to the ground, so we’re standing on the back of the truck. The three of us and some EMT guys were all there.”
Dockweiler remembers worrying about what would come next. “I didn’t know anything about compartment syndrome until Blake was up in the bucket,” he says. “One of the EMTs said the guy in the tree was basically going to expire if he came upright.”
For his part, Eckstein was navigating the bucket through a cloud of angry bees. During his hours-long ordeal, Voelker had somehow managed to disturb a hive. He said later that the bees bothered him more than anything else while he was awaiting rescue, but for the lineworker ascending to save him, the insects were less than an afterthought.
“I didn’t know about the bees until I actually got up there,” Eckstein says. “I wasn’t even thinking about them.”
Eckstein cut some of the ropes the first responders had used to stabilize Voelker in the tree, but the hunter began to choke, triggering a panicky struggle. “When he started to panic, you could see things were starting to change,” Eckstein says. “It felt like things were going south.”
With one last effort, the lineworker hoisted Voelker up and laid him across the top edges of the bucket. The injured hunter passed out. Eckstein piloted the bucket back down to the truck, and the medical crew quickly took over.
A medical-evacuation helicopter on the scene took Voelker off to a hospital in Walla Walla, Washington, where he would recover in an induced coma and go on to spend three months in treatment.
At the La Grande Fire Department, Chief Thomas still thinks often about that incident and the co-op crew’s role in the rescue. The episode made the 2018 “Top 10 Rescues” list in a firefighter journal, and the fire chief knows that the happy ending was due to an EMT’s remembering simulated pole-top rescues at a co-op training yard.
“That was a super-great resource for one of our professionals to think about: People who use this stuff every day and practice getting people down from situations like this,” Thomas says. “They helped us out a hundred percent. Great guys. Really, really great guys.”
His department joined the La Grande City Council in presenting Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative and its La Grande district crew a commendation for the heroic efforts of Patton, Eckstein, Dockweiler, and McKern that hot day in the forest.
The line crew reluctantly accepted the city’s thanks. And then, like lineworkers all across the country, they got back to work.
“I had trouble getting them to go and accept an award from the city council,” says Mike Pommarane, the co-op’s operations director. “They felt like that’s just what they do, and that’s who they are. In 30 years on the job, I don’t know of a lineman I’ve ever met who wouldn’t have jumped in the bucket to help that guy.”