We got involved with a minor emergency on a mini vacation. While taking waterfall photos at a trailhead we met a man whose car failed. His very cool, vintage, Datsun Z car experienced a coolant system failure and he needed a tow. We tried to call AAA on both of our phones but we had no cell coverage. I had repair tape in my kits but we could not find the source of the coolant leak. He was stuck, there were no services in the area (about 35 miles to town), and we had no communications. This article describes what transpired and how we could have done better.
The driver was stuck, the car required towing, and we had only a couple of hours of daylight left. He elected to stay with his car and get towed into town. I offered him a space blanket to protect him from the cold but he had a warm jacket and some extra clothes. In the worst case he could shelter in the car which would protect him from the elements and trap in heat. Even if stuck all night he would be OK.
We had no means of communicating so I took his information and headed down the road. I had his name, AAA phone number, member number, car plate number, and a very detailed description of the location. He was stuck at the waterfall trailhead on Hwy-126 at approximately milepost 6. As we drove I checked my phone service but we were still out of range. We turned into a trailhead hoping to find a ranger. By pure luck we found a small power station with a pay phone outside. The pay phone worked and I called AAA and relayed the details. I alerted them that they would almost certainly receive multiple calls for this motorist because another couple headed in a different direction would also call. Due to a road closure we had to head back in the same direction and we stopped and informed the motorist that AAA was dispatching a tow truck.
I made several follow-up calls with AAA and it took them over four hours to get there. We left the parking lot at around 5:45pm and they did not get there until after 10pm. AAA called at about 10:20pm and informed me that he got home safely. At one point the AAA operator stated that they were dispatching the tow truck to the wrong location and I corrected them.
While this was a minor emergency it could have turned out very badly. Night temperatures were probably in the low 30s and an unprepared and stranded motorist could have been in fairly serious trouble. There were multiple other motorists at the trailhead but if the stranded motorist was alone then it could have turned into a search and rescue. Had a window broken then the car would offer much less protection especially from cold, wind, rain, and snow. If temperatures were lower then a motorist without warm clothes could die from hypothermia. If the road was less traveled then it could have some time before anyone would find the stranded motorist especially since the car was at a trailhead and not visible from the road. Under slightly different conditions this could have been a deadly situation.
While the situation turned out well here are some things that would have helped:
- Illumination: We expected help to arrive in about two hours but it took over four hours. Night fell and the parking lot and road had no lights. A lantern or headlamp with an emergency beacon could have aided in a rescue. Many headlamps have a strobe mode and a tough lantern such as the Streamlight Siege have a red, triple-blink distress beacon. Either option placed on the main road would mark the location and provide an alert to passing first responders. Lights should have a long life and be waterproof and NOT merely water resistant. Recommendations include Streamlight Siege, Black Diamond Spot headlamp, and Black Diamond Storm headlamp.
- Shelter: In this case a vehicle or emergency kit should include some basic shelter including a base layer, space blanket, sleeping bag or warm bag liner, etc. If you were stuck in a remote location could you survive the night in your vehicle? It is also a good idea to have some thick plastic sheeting and duct tape in your vehicle. If a window broke you could patch it with the plastic to give you better shelter against the elements.
- More Information: I did a decent job with getting information about the stranded motorist but I could have done better. I should have gotten his name, mobile number (for information lookups), AAA phone and membership numbers, license plate number, vehicle description, and emergency contacts. We thought the tow truck would arrive in a couple of hours and it took over four hours. Loved ones could have been very worried. If I had called a friend or loved one then they could follow-up on the rescue, driven to the site, and/or just been informed.
- Food & Water would have been good to have for an extended wait. If you have special medical needs then you have some necessary medications in the vehicle.
This was a minor inconvenience for the stranded motorist but it could have been a very bad situation if conditions were only slightly different. Keep in mind that you could easily get stranded. You might go for a short hike, leave your lights on, and be the last one off the trail. If you get stuck can you survive the night and have a way to signal for help? A simple vehicle kit could include the items necessary to survive.