The misadventure of two teen runaways might have ended in tragedy Friday night on the Yellowstone River, if not for the quick action of bystanders, first responders and a Billings helicopter pilot.
Two people, later identified as 14-year-old boys, were spotted on an island in the icy Yellowstone River near the city water plant shortly before 4:30 p.m. Friday. Mark Palmer and Tim Davenport were on the north bank at Mystic Park to look at the river. Davenport told a Gazette reporter they saw two people on the island “with sticks in their hand, barely able to walk, screaming for help, waving us down.” Palmer called 911.
Billings police, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies responded. The Sheriff’s Department brought a raft and two Billings firefighters donned dry suits for a cold water rescue, according to Sheriff Mike Linder. Ice in the river and the near darkness made reaching the island on the raft difficult and dangerous, slowing the rescue effort.
One of the boys was lying flat on the ground and both apparently were wet, Linder told The Gazette Monday. A deputy sheriff suspected that the teens were residents of New Day, which operates group homes not far from the river on Coburn Road, Linder said. There’s a steep cliff between the group homes and the river. The deputy said asked a dispatcher to notify the nonprofit mental health and addiction treatment organization, and a New Day representative arrived on the scene.
With darkness falling fast, Linder said he called Gary Blain of Billings Flying Service for help. “He said, ‘I’ll be there in 10 minutes’, and that just about when he arrived,” Linder said.
Blain dropped off his passenger on the bank where an ambulance waited. Then he flew over to the island and landed the Bell helicopter. Billings Firefighters Kyle Clark and Keith Sulser, a paramedic, immediately loaded the boys into the helicopter. One boy appeared not to be moving and was carried into the aircraft. Blain then flew back to the bank where medical first responders transferred the teens to an ambulance and onto a hospital. Then he flew the helicopter back to the island, picked up the firefighters and pulled their raft back to the bank.
Neither Linder nor the Billings Fire Department had further information on the teens’ condition Monday. The clinical director at New Day said she couldn't comment on any residents because of privacy law, but added: "We have no one on the run and no one at the hospital and we sure appreciate Mr. Blain."
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Linder and Billings Fire Battalion Chief Jason Lyon praised Blain at the rescue scene.
“Special thanks to Billings Flying Service for coming and helping,” Lyon said. “That was huge.”
Linder, who has been part of the county’s water search and rescue team for decades, said the helicopter got the boys to safety much faster than a river-crossing rescue would have.
Gary Blain and other members of his flying family have helped out local and area law enforcement for many years. It was Blain who in October flew Linder and a deputy to search for a missing man, helped locate the body by the river and helped the officers recover the remains. Linder recalled flying with Gary Blain on other searches and rescue calls up and down the Yellowstone River. Billings Flying Service pilots even helped pursue and subdue suspected car thieves a couple of times, Linder said.
The volunteer pilot help has been fast and free of charge, the sheriff said.
“He’s been there for us many times,” Linder said. “They’ve never asked for anything, even when we offered.”
Billings is fortunate to have such a dependable and generous aviation volunteer.