Officials reflect on rescue


Along with other emergency officials, Sheriff Jimmy Thornton breathed a sigh of relief after a 72-year-old Sampson County man was found alive following a recent search mission.

The five-day search was not an easy one, as success was made possible with the assistance of more than 80 agencies in North Carolina and Virginia, said local law enforcement and emergency officials, who recently talked about the massive effort.

“Thank goodness for them, because we would have been lost,” Thornton said about the 400 people involved.

It all began on Tuesday, May 26, shortly after 1:17 p.m., when the Sampson County E-911 center received a report that William “Willie” Powell of Birdy Lane in Garland was missing. Less than one week later, he was found on the bank of the South River in the southern portion of the county.

“Up until his clothing was found on the river bank, we did not come upon anything,” Thornton said.

Ronald Bass, director of Emergency Management, said an Incident Command System (ICS) was set up to coordinate with multiple agencies. It started with their mobile command post, but as the search became larger, it was moved to the Garland rescue building. Personnel from the local sheriff’s office and emergency management led shifts throughout the search.

“The ICS system makes things flow a lot easier and it allows you to handle a situation better,” Bass said.

Thornton said the ICS process of letting the right hand process know what the left hand is doing. Bass said accountability in any incident is essential when it comes to safety.

“I think working together and working for one goal was outstanding,” Bass said.

During the event, there was 147 missions, with at least three or four people in each group, searching through means such as riding on horses and all-terrain vehicles. The 24/7 search also included dogs and volunteers searching through the dark with flashlights.

“That was quite an undertaking,” Bass said regarding different zones or areas searched in Sampson County.

Some of the other vehicles involved included helicopters and boats. The Johnston County Sheriff’s Department’s Swift Water Rescue Team cleared portions of the river with chainsaws. Cumberland county also assisted with similar search effort as well.

In addition to paid and volunteer emergency officials, residents and volunteers helped in the process.

“The volunteer aspect of it was phenomenal,” Bass said.

The American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the N.C. Baptist Men’s Disaster Support Team prepared meals for the searchers.

“There was no lack in beverages, water and that kind of stuff,” Thornton said regarding help from local organizations and residents. “There was never a time when there was not something there to eat or drink.”

Capt. Eric Pope, of the Sampson County Sheriff’s Department, noted how young people played a part as well. Tarheel ChalleNGe Academy provided logistical support at the rescue building by providing housekeeping and maintenance, while the Civil Air Patrol brought cadets from neighboring state Virginia.

“They brought cadet squadrons, who are basically teenagers who have been trained in search and rescue techniques,” Pope said. “They came, camped out and did multiple techniques in the search. You’re talking about high school-aged kids involved in the search.”

Pope stressed how volunteer organizations are key in any operation they have. He also noted how there’s been a decline in volunteer services throughout Sampson County.

“If we relied solely on paid resources for something like this, the bill would be astronomical,” Pope said. “We constantly need to keep building them as well and encourage others to support these organizations, so if we have this down the road, we have those resources available.

“With any volunteer organization, if you don’t nurture them and help them grow, they’ll eventually die.”

Bass said it was probably one of the biggest search efforts in years. At one point, they were getting to where they would have to consider whether to continue the search.

“Knowing that we had to make that decision and tell the family, we felt like it would be in our best interest to get the military involved if we could to help us,” Thornton said.

After being denied assistance from Fort Bragg, the Marines and the National Guard, Thornton called Gov. Pat McCrory’s office for military assistance. The ending result was 50 National Guard troops on Sunday morning.

“It was an all-out push on that Sunday with hopes in being able to seal the deal,” Thornton said. “Even with their efforts he was still hiding good enough where he couldn’t be found or seen.”

Thornton said he was glad that the governor’s office worked with them to send the Highway Patrol and the National Guard to help them.

“We knew that we had to make a special push on Sunday,” Bass said. “Time wasn’t on our side then. We knew volunteers were going back to work and staff would have went down Monday.”

Thornton said local emergency officials wanted to do everything in their power, before giving up. And near 6 p.m. on that Sunday an alert, but dehydrated Powell was discovered. Thornton thanked God and the volunteers for the final result.

“It was a relief,” the sheriff said. “In the end, we were successful. We didn’t fail — that was the focus from the beginning when he was reported missing. We cautiously made every effort to locate him and it paid off in the end.”

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