But that's what happened to Henry Morello, who was rescued this past Saturday near Arizona's Bloody Basin Road and Phoenix Interstate 17. Morello had mistakenly taken a wrong turn and drove into the barren desert. I don't know the details, but after his rescue he reported that his car battery died, as did his cell phone battery.
"I can't walk, so I had to stay there," he said. "I tried to walk away, but I fell down and had to crawl back."
Using his cane, he struggled to get back inside his car. When the temperature fell into the 30s at night, Morello used the car's floor mats to cover himself. Those long, cold nights were the worst, he said, because he got scared that nobody would ever find him. He had no water to drink, but he did have some leftover pasta in the car, but choose not to eat it because it made him more thirsty.
On day 5, he heard a knock on the window and was found by some hikers who, as luck would have it, were passing by. That began his rescue process and a 3-day stay in the hospital.
This is a story that could have had a much more tragic ending, so we're happy for Mr. Morello's family. But it's better to not rely on luck bringing wandering rescuers accidentally to our aid, so there are things for us to learn from this incident.
- Early rescue is better than late rescue, so be sure to carry devices that will allow you to call for help when you need it. Morello had a cell phone, but the dead battery made it useless. Have the ability to charge your cell phone from the vehicle's cigarette lighter socket. Then don't kill the vehicle battery by running the lights or continually trying to start a reluctant engine to the point that the battery dies. If you're within range of cell service, that little device can save your life, so make sure it works.
- To signal your position and alert people who can initiate a rescue, have the ability to start a fire. Feed green foliage or oily rags or rubber into the fire during the day to create massive amounts of smoke. Keep the fire burning brightly at night to show your position.
- Carry a signal mirror and whistle in your vehicle and put them in your pocket if you leave the vehicle, so you are equipped to signal for help both audibly and visually. The flash of light from a mirror will carry for miles. When the sun goes down or you're in dense forest, use the whistle when you think someone might be near enough to hear it.
- Carry in your vehicle enough drinking water to last you a few days. The easy way to do this is to buy a case or two of bottled water or a few 1-gallon jugs at the grocery store and leave them in the trunk. It's not always possible to find or "make" enough water to keep you alive, so the best thing is to carry it with you. Figure on 1 gallon per day per person.
- Morello was right to avoid eating when he didn't have water to drink. Eating increases thirst, but worse yet it increases the body's need for water to carry out the digestion process.
- Morello was also right to stay with the vehicle. If you're lost and someone is looking for you, they'll spot a vehicle more easily than they will spot an individual hiking through brush or trees. In the physical condition of Mr. Morello, it would be unwise to attempt to hike out of the desert, although someone in better condition might be successful hiking out for help. In that case, the best option is to follow the trail back in the direction from which you came, rather than attempting to take shortcuts cross-country.
- He did the right thing by improvising the floor mats into some covering to help retain his body warmth at night. Better yet would be to carry an emergency blanket in the vehicle and even a sleeping bag, if you have the room for it.