Arizona’s first responders know to watch for the late-summer arrival of the desert monsoon, the hot and sopping winds that ride from the Gulf of California and the eastern Pacific Ocean into the face of its desert mountains, from the Mogollon Rim down to Baboquivari Peak.
So Aviation Enforcement Agent Matt Covino wasn’t surprised when an emergency call came into the Tucson nerve center of US Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations on Aug. 23 about an undocumented migrant lost in the storm-whipped Baboquivari Mountains.
The mountains run like a rocky spine up the Tohono O’odham Nation, which calls the sacred spires their “Sky Islands.”
Lashed by rain and left lame on a one-way trail from Mexico on the western slope of the mountains, the man phoned emergency dispatchers to report he had a weak heart and already had survived “a couple of nights” in the monsoon, Covino told Coffee or Die Magazine.
As midnight loomed, US Border Patrol agents drove as far as they could into the black mountains, but the road ran out still 6 miles from the man. Ringing his cell phone, elite Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue operators urged him to drink water and wait out the night. They’d try reach him by air in the morning.
“I think that it’s becoming common that they’re calling us for rescue like they’re calling an Uber,” Covino said. “And we’re happy to do it because it takes everybody out of risks that would normally have to respond, but it’s not without risk to the aircrew and the aircraft and the people who ultimately end up involved.”
Rescues in the Baboquivaris are tricky. First responders often face sheer flint cliffs, swirling winds, rugged paths that get washed out in the monsoon deluges, and jagged bolts of lightning clapping at the peaks during the season of storms.
But Covino’s UH-60A Black Hawk crew got lucky. The morning sun burned away the rain, and they rode toward the Sky Islands alongside a pair of BORSTAR agents, heading to the grid coordinates traced to the man’s cell phone.
Covino looked down, and the migrant was there along a ridge at about 4,700 feet of elevation, waving. The agent said he “wasn’t hard to find.”
The two BORSTAR agents quickly fast-roped down to the migrant.
They fitted him in a rescue vest and linked him to the line, and then the Black Hawk veered away, the rescuers and the man dangling from the helicopter until they reached a clear landing zone.
A US Border Patrol vehicle was waiting to whisk the man off to medical care.
The journey lasted only a few minutes, the shadow of the Black Hawk riding black against the desert floor below, green after the monsoon rains.
But Covino said the risk to the rescuers remained high because of “a human being that’s an external load on an aircraft.”
“Without us even gaining any altitude, the mountain is falling away,” he added. “Those guys are very quickly hundreds of feet in the air.”
That’s why Covino believes rescue missions like that should be limited only to “somebody who needs to be immediately removed from a situation.”
“For this particular case, I felt it was called for because it saved agents from having to go out into that environment,” he told Coffee or Die.
Check out video of the rescue here.