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Crew rescues six youths trapped on Spruce Knob

HARMAN, W.Va. — Six young men from the Eastern Panhandle set out Friday to have a good time on Spruce Knob, but their excursion ended up in a life-and-death emergency in the middle of one of the worst blizzards to hit West Virginia in years.

Harman Fire Chief Jerry Teter, 61, received a call from Whitmer resident Ronnie Armentrout at 10 a.m. Saturday that six boys were stranded by high snow above Spruce Knob Lake. Ethan Turner of Grant County was able to contact Armentrout by phone, advising him of their plight.

The youths had three vehicles and all were stuck in deep and drifting snow. They had spent Friday night in their vehicles and were tired, hungry and desperate.

“Them boys would have froze to death. They couldn’t have walked out of there,” Teter said.

“They were 14 miles past the lake, surrounded by forest and snow depths of 4 feet, somewhere near the Pocahontas County line on Spruce Mountain, miles and miles from any help.

Teter explained the situation to Randolph County Office of Emergency Management Director Cindy Hart, and it was determined that the Harman VFD’s Snowcat, along with fellow volunteer John Dearborn’s ‘Cat, were the only way to reach the marooned men.

Teter, Dearborn, Armentrout and Todd Raines, another Harman VFD member, set out for the approximately 20-mile rescue up the snow-filled national forest road up Glady Fork to the lake.

Forging through blinding snow and bitter cold with only one ‘Cat’s heater working, they came to Turner’s Jeep, stuck deep in the snow. Turner and a friend had made it 9 miles above the lake in an attempt to reach their three pals, who had phoned them for help after the deep snow had trapped their two vehicles.

Teter said it would have been impossible for a helicopter to have gotten through the raging winter storm. The Harman men had food and 25 gallons of gasolene along to aid the young men if they could make it to them.

After they reached Turner, the rugged Snowcats had to keep plowing on over drifts up to 5-feet thick for 5 more miles into some of the densest and most remote forestland in the state. They finally reached the other vehicles, which were 5 miles farther up the buried road from Turner’s Jeep.

“They was dug deep and out of fuel 14 miles back (past Spruce Knob Lake),” Teter related. “One boy had shoes on, but no socks. They were real cold and hungry. It was snowing hard yet. We seen their (vehicle) tracks with a foot of snow covering them, but the tracks led them to the helpless youths.”

The rescuers gave food and fuel to the stranded men, and although Turner’s vehicle had chains, he had a frozen throttle cable and had torn up the differential in his Jeep. The Harman men and the youths then started back toward Whitmer, the nearest town.

As darkness fell Saturday night, they made it back to the lake, when Harman Snowcat’s communication equipment failed. They had been in contact with the Elkins COM center every half hour and were now cut off. At about the same time, their ‘Cat ran out of fuel, because of their having given extra gas for the three trapped vehicles, two of which followed the ‘Cats, one of them towing the third.

Dearborn, who builds ski lifts throughout the U.S. and Mexico, now began the rescue of the rescuers with his own ‘Cat. He started pushing the Harman ‘Cat from behind for the treacherous 10 miles to Whitmer, which they reached several hours later, traveling around 4 miles per hour.

Waiting on them was a Harman ambulance, driven by Scott Shomo, a physicians assistant, and his wife, Donelle, Teter’ daughter, a registered nurse. The men were treated, one having a small amount of frostbite, but they refused to be taken to the hospital and drove off back to their homes.

At 11 p.m., Jerry Teter was back home, worn out, his feet were wet and cold, he ate, showered and said he slept like a dead man.

On Sunday, Teter, having helped save six lives the previous day, now had to rescue his cattle, which were trapped in deep snow on his farm near Job. This time, two National Guard hummers helped the chief – who also is the Harman mayor – reach his cows with plenty of hay bales to spare.

But it was still not time to rest. Two people were stranded on Allegheny Mountain, cut off a mile from U.S. 33 by deep snow. With the help of the Guardsmen and their Hummers, they were able to break through the deep drifts that had left Anita and Jimmy Varner unable to get out.

On the cattle rescue and the aid to the Varners, Teter was assisted by another Harman volunteer fireman, W.D. Mullennex, 36.

Mullennex explained the role of volunteers like the Harman fire crew, “If the neighbors can’t help out, we got problems. We’re too small a community to rely on anybody. We have to help each other, or we may never get help.”

Teter said people ask him how he gets time to do everything, like drive school bus and do mechanic work at Midway Motors, besides all of his other responsibilities. He grinned at this and then said, helping others as he and his volunteers do, “It’s just fun. We have a blast doing what we do!”

The Harman Snowcat also lost its differential on the rescue trip as well as the ‘Cat’s rear door, which bears the motto, “WE’LL GO ANYWHERE THAT’S NEEDED.”

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