‘Thread the Needle 19 Times’ — How Rescuers Saved Schoolchildren Trapped in the Chasm of Doom

June 15, 2022Noelle Wiehe
Utah slot canyon rescue

A rescuer from the Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau is lowered into a slot canyon to rescue 19 trapped hikers on Friday, June 10, 2022. Still from Department of Public Safety helmet camera footage.

Into Red Rock Country’s Chasm of Doom they rode, the sandstone hotter than an oven, toward the 17 children and two adult climbers trapped inside a deadly slot canyon for 30 hours.

It was Friday, June 10, and the Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau’s elite rescuers didn’t know it yet, but they were about to attempt the biggest rescue ever run in the infamously treacherous Sandthrax Canyon.

“We do these missions, one after the next after the next,” rescue specialist Sgt. Nick Napierski told Coffee or Die Magazine. “But we’ve never had one to this scale of 19 people that are trapped and need help right now. That changed the game for us a little bit.”

By 8 a.m., pilot Scott Barnes was holding his Airbus A-Star H-125 in a steady hover just 30 feet above a slot into a canyon that plummeted 10 stories. Trooper Landon Middaugh began lowering Napierski into a gash in the wind-polished slickrock no wider than a coffin. And the farther down Napierski went, the more grit and dust whirled by the rotor wash pocked his eyes, cheeks, and mouth. He could barely see his descent into the crevice.

Somewhere at the bottom were kids as young as 11 years old. Garfield County Sheriff James “Danny” Perkins Jr. later compared the daring rescue to “threading a needle.”

Chasm of Doom
Rescuers with the Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau on Friday, June 10, 2022, hover over Utah’s Sandthrax Canyon — aka the Chasm of Doom — where 19 hikers were trapped. Still from Department of Public Safety helmet camera footage.

“We’re not worried about how it happened or why it happened, just that it did happen, and so we just try to get everybody out,” Napierski said.

It happened because a youth group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to brave the morning heat and struck out from their camp for the North Wash tributaries of southeastern Utah’s Colorado Plateau.

It’s a region where the rocks have been rubbed red by erosion and the constant whistle of the wind. Weather has whittled the earth into Navajo sandstone domes, goblins, fairy chimneys, and slot canyons.

Debate continues over whether the group meant to enter Sandthrax Canyon or if they’d intended to traverse nearby Leprechaun Canyon.

But Sheriff Perkins told Coffee or Die it really doesn’t matter because “they’re all very high-level canyons, every one of them,” and only “very, very, very experienced” and physically fit climbers should even try any of the quartet of slot canyons there.

Chasm of Doom
A rescuer from the Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau is lowered into a slot canyon to rescue 19 trapped hikers on Friday, June 10, 2022. Still from Department of Public Safety helmet camera footage.

Although Napierski is an experienced canyoner, he said he wouldn’t even attempt Sandthrax on his best day. It’s only about a third of a mile long, but it’s reserved for expert climbers who routinely stem and chimney for hours at a time.

“It just takes a lot of physical strength and stamina to make it through,” he said. “I’ve never done this one, nor would I.” 

Perkins said rescuers tend not to find many novices in Sandthrax. 

“The people that we usually have that get in the most precarious positions are the experts because they question themselves and they get in trouble,” the sheriff said.

Most climbers enter the canyon by trudging through a muddy tunnel that quickly pinches into a crevice only a few inches across. Canyoners can’t see the sky. Light fades into the black. 

“They had no idea what they were facing,” Perkins said. 

Chasm of Doom
The space was so tight in Utah’s Sandthrax Canyon — aka the Chasm of Doom — that the 19 trapped people inside it were forced to take turns sleeping or standing. Still from Department of Public Safety helmet camera footage.

The primary route to the upper part of the canyon is by scaling sandstone domes and then hiking roughly five blocks over slickrock, avoiding the sheer dryfalls that can plunge 40 stories, but that’s not a climb for schoolchildren.

So they kept going into the canyon until they were trapped. 

“They were stuck. They couldn’t go forward. They couldn’t go backward,” Perkins said.

A few who never entered the canyon returned to the campsite to fetch food and water for the 19 trapped inside who would have to bed down for the night.

Perkins told Coffee or Die it was so tight in the slot that “they had to take turns lying down.”

Chasm of Doom
The space was so tight in Utah’s Sandthrax Canyon — aka the Chasm of Doom — that the 19 trapped people inside it were forced to take turns sleeping or standing. Still from Department of Public Safety helmet camera footage.

There’s no cell phone reception in the wilderness, so a group leader drove an hour to Hanksville and called emergency dispatchers. Officials at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office figured that with the temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, the best way to save lives was with a helicopter carrying a three-man Aero Bureau rope rescue crew. 

Utah Department of Public Safety Sgt. Cameron Roden told Coffee or Die the team quickly realized that it was going to be very difficult to get a whole crew into the slot. They decided to use the helicopter to hover over the hole, sending a sole rescuer “down in there and help pull them out” one at a time on a hoist.

The team got half the kids out of the canyon before the helicopter began running out of gas. Authorities had planned for that, hauling fuel to the desert. Flying to the tank, filling up, and heading back to the slot cost the crew no more than 10 minutes.

“That fueling mid-mission actually worked out really well to get everybody sort of regrouped and give the pilot operator time to shake out their nerves and get reoriented for the rest of the mission,” Napierski said. 

They pulled every trapped hiker from the Chasm of Doom.

The entire operation took 105 minutes.

Napierski said a well-trained crew like his team made the operation go “just like butter.”

“We just started to look at the totality of the circumstances and then make a determination if we can safely operate, execute a hoist, and reduce and mitigate whatever liabilities we have and different risk factors,” he continued. “But typically hoisting, that’s our bread and butter for getting people out of really bad spots and keeping the helicopter out away from hazards.”

But Perkins told Coffee or Die it was a lot harder than Napierski makes it sound, and the team was forced to “thread the needle 19 times” to rescue every person.

Read Next: Rescuers Find Florida Man Chin-Deep in Cold Quicksand, and Sinking

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved