Airmen to the rescue

Submitted Photo Three airmen from Minot Air Force Base helped save an injured man when he was attacked by a bison. This photo shows a park bison but not the one that attacked the man. NPS photo by Laura Thomas.

WATFORD CITY – A relaxing camping trip turned into an emergency rescue mission for three Minot Air Force Base airmen who rushed to the aid of a hiker attacked by a bison in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Watford City.

Senior Airmen Justin Valentine, Jake Nixon and Christopher Velazquez were with a group from Minot Air Force Base on Friday, June 30, camping in the Juniper Campground in the park when, at about 10:30 p.m., they heard someone calling for help.

They were winding down after a long day of exploring in the North Unit of the park when, as Nixon described, “Over our campfire we hear a yell off in the distance and we sort of paused and looked at each other, ‘Did we just hear someone yell help?’ A moment later we hear it again off in the distance.”

“It was faint,” added Valentine.

They grabbed flashlights, Velazquez got his concealed carry firearm and the three headed off into the brush toward the area where the voice was coming from.

Getting to a road, they followed it for about a quarter mile before they saw a light from the injured man who had climbed up a butte to get away from the bison, also often called buffalo.

“We hear him yelling something about a buffalo so we approached cautiously. We can see the mass of a buffalo below him,” Nixon said.

“Before we actually got there he was yelling things like “bleeding, buffalo, call 9-1-1,” added Velazquez. He sent a message back for someone to call 9-1-1.

Valentine said Nixon and Velazquez are faster than he is and got to the site a few seconds before him. He said he could hear the man saying things like “stuck in a hole, I’m bleeding, help.” “It wasn’t until I got close I realized there was a buffalo in the equation that was between us and this man,” Valentine said.

With the bison standing there, they could not approach the injured man. By this time 10 or so campers from other campsites filed in behind the three Minot AFB men. One camper drove a car to the area.

“At this point the buffalo started to approach the man again,” Nixon said.

“The guy kept yelling, ‘help, help, help’ “ said Velazquez. Velazquez yelled to the man, “How bad is the cut, how much are you blooding” and the man responded, “A lot. I need help, I need an ambulance, it’s critical.”

Velazquez said they tried to get the bison out of the way so they could get to the man. The bison was standing at the bottom of the butte.

“We tried to be loud, we tried to scare in numbers, the buffalo wasn’t having it,” Nixon said.

Velazquez said they did not know the extent of the man’s injuries but his voice sounded like it was bad and life threatening.

“At this point we needed to get to him immediately so after all other resources were expended I decided to shoot into the ground,” Velazquez said, who was wrestling with whether or not to shoot because he knew discharging a firearm was against National Park Service regulations but they also needed to get to the injured man. He hoped to scare the bison so it would go away. Velazquez fired the shot but the bison kept on eating grass and didn’t move. After 30 seconds or so the bison started looking at them and started coming toward them, he said.

To get away from the bison the airmen and several other campers piled into the mid-size Toyota Corolla.

“I remember basically being pressed up against the ceiling of this vehicle against seven other people,” Nixon said.

“The door wasn’t even closing, at least on my side,” Valentine said.

The bison, though, lost interest and went around the butte to the back side, giving the rescuers an opportunity to help the hiker.

The three airmen and a camper with a machete ran to the hiker. “Machete man tore off his shirt, tore it in half,” Nixon said. He said the camper with the machete tied his shirt tightly around the man’s wound to stop the bleeding. He said the injured man had taken off his socks and stuffed them into the wound to stop the bleeding. His socks were soaked with blood. His leg was covered in blood and his pants were absolutely soaked at this point.

They had sent some of the campers back to contact the camp host, the person in charge of the campgrounds, to get in touch with park staff.

Their next step was to get the man to a safe location while keeping an eye out for bison.

Valentine got the man down from the butte, walking backwards so in case the injured man slipped he could brace him. Because he was holding the man, he didn’t want to put both of them into a situation in which the man as well as himself would be injured on their way down.

Another camper then helped the man the rest of the way to the waiting Toyota car. Once the man was safely in the car and on his way to meet an ambulance with emergency medical technicians waiting at the end of the road, the three airmen and two or three other campers stayed to provide statements to park staff and the camp host who had been contacted about the incident. Nixon had photographed the incident for documentation.

Velazquez said the park rangers thanked them for handling the situation so well and what they did. Although firearms are allowed in the park but are not allowed to be fired, a ranger told them in this case it was understood.

Overall, the airmen figured the entire incident from when they first heard the injured man yelling until they rescued him took about half an hour. By the time the man was off the butte they said it was after 11 p.m. and pitch dark.

Eileen Andes, Medora, chief of Interpretation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, said the injured hiker, Michael Turk, 51, of Juneau, Alaska, encountered the bison on the North Unit’s Buckhorn Trail when he was coming back from taking photos of the sunset. Turk saw the bison and tried to walk around it but didn’t give it a wide enough berth.

She said Turk suffered a laceration of his left inner thigh. She said the bison apparently threw Turk into a bush and he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness he hiked to the trailhead and saw more bison so he climbed several feet up a butte and called for help. The campers heard him and responded to his calls, she said.

Andes said Turk was treated, including getting stitches and then released on Saturday, July 1, from the McKenzie County Hospital in Watford City. She said he was able to walk. She said Turk did not have a car but had a bicycle at the park.

The morning following the incident, the airmen said they awoke to find a buffalo in the campground walking near their tents. But the bison left without incident.

The three airmen credit much of their emergency response actions to their Air Force training. All are members of the 705th Munitions Squadron at the Minot base.

Valentine of Littleton, Pa., said, “We wanted to help because we had the ability to. When you hear a cry for help, you’ve got that on your mind ‘what if that was you on the butte?” Valentine said.

Nixon, an Eagle Scout from Troop 613 in Golden, Colo., said he has been involved in a handful of search-and-rescue situations. “Early on I understood I was in good company with my fellow brothers in uniform. The Air Force has prepared all three of us for SABC – self-aid buddy care – procedures. Any of us could have applied the tourniquet if necessary, cleaned the wound and found him a safe spot.” he said.

Velazquez, of Orlando, Fla., said their military training helped them a great deal, especially in handling stressful situations and preventing escalation. “I am way more prepared now in dealing with stressful things like that than I would have been before the Air Force.” He said making sure everything is calm and the three of them coming together to control the situation versus chaos is one of the biggest tips the Air Force has given to them.