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Glen Onoko rescues are all too frequent

Published December 30. 2010 05:00PM

Tuesday afternoon was fairly routine for Jim Thorpe Fire Chief Bill Diehm. Routine in the sense that he did something he's done numerous times in the past.

Unfortunately, in this case, Diehm wishes he didn't have much experience with this particular protocol; after all, hiking injuries are anything but enjoyable.

"In the past year, I'd estimate that half a dozen people have fallen along Glen Onoko," Diehm said. "Some were lucky to walk away on their own, but at least three had to be carried down."

Jim Thorpe resident Robert Bilardo became a member of the latter group Dec. 28 (the day before his 46th birthday) when he fell 50 feet into the freezing waters Diehm estimated 35 degrees at the time of Bilardo's plunge of the creek at the bottom of Glen Onoko. Luckily, local emergency workers were well versed in Onoko hiker extraction. According to Diehm, as soon as he got the dispatch call at 2:45 p.m., he immediately phoned nearby fire departments for backup.

"We don't have the manpower to do a rescue on our own," he said, "but when we call, they know what equipment they need to bring and they know exactly what to do; we've done it (rescue hikers) as a group so many times."

In addition to Diehm's own Jim Thorpe squad, members of the Nesquehoning, Lehighton and Lake Hauto Fire departments rushed to the trailhead, bringing together close to 30 respondents. Not a single one went unused.

One member of the team was Jim Thorpe Police Sergeant Michaelangelo Bokeko. According to Bokeko, the hike up to Bilardo's location took 20 minutes, and covered roughly three-quarter of a mile. The trip back, however, was a different story.

Using a device known as a Stokes basket, a specialized stretcher designed to carry victims through rough terrain, the team of firefighters and EMTs made a slow, deliberate descent down the trail. At some points, the danger became so great that Bilardo was passed down hand-over-hand in an assembly line-like fashion. Ultimately, it took almost two hours to reach the trailhead, according to Diehm.

"It's a dangerous area when the weather is good, let alone in the winter," Diehm said. "We took our time. We didn't want anyone else falling." To make traversing the icy trail easier, the rescue team spread Speedy Dry, a powerful absorbent, to increase traction.

Perhaps most shocking was the fact that Bilardo and his two hiking mates weren't alone on the trail that day. Both Diehm and Bokeko were surprised to find several other hikers, including some children, present on the trail.

Luckily for Bilardo, one such individual was John Spanogle, a Hellertown native who, as a current student of St. Luke's School of Nursing and a licensed emergency medical technician, has extensive medical training. While hiking at Glen Onoko with a group of 12 family members and friends, Spanogle heard a cry for help. After rushing to the scene, Spanogle called 911 and helped stabilize Bilardo.

"Yeah, it was good I was there," Spanogle said, "but if it wasn't for the quick response of the rescue team, he (Bilardo) wouldn't have survived.

"No single person should be given credit. Teamwork saved his life."

According to Mike Dinsmore, the assistant park manager for the Hickory Run Complex, which includes Glen Onoko, the trail has been in operation since the early 20th Century, when it was part of the popular tourist attraction known as Hotel Wahnetah. It hasn't undergone any maintenance since a 1917 fire permanently closed the resort area, and, because the land that the trail resides on is currently owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it's doubtful that any renovations will be made.

"To my knowledge, no trail on game lands has ever been altered or closed because of injuries," Peter Sussenbach, the WCO supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Northeast Region, said. "There are dangerous areas all over the state, and it's up to the user to determine whether or not to traverse them, trails included."

At least local outdoorsmen can rely on emergency personnel like Diehm. After all, he does have plenty of experience.

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