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Five Yosemite National Park employees and two members of the public were honored by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt at the 74th Honor Award Convocation Ceremony in Washington, D.C. for heroic actions, courage and professionalism in the line of duty. For their actions taken during three separate rescue operations, Park Ranger Aaron Smith, Park Ranger Jack Hoeflich, Park Ranger Thomas Healy, Helicopter Foreman Eric Small, and Aviation Manager Jeff Pirog received the Valor Award of the Department of the Interior. Helicopter Pilot Tim Lyons and private citizen Rory Farrell received the Department of the Interior’s Citizen’s Award for Bravery.
Aaron Smith, Jack Hoeflich, Eric Small, Jeff Pirog and Tim Lyons were recognized for their heroic actions taken to save a life on October 3, 2014:
On October 3, 2014, the park received a 911 call reporting that a climber had fallen on The Nose route of El Capitan, approximately 1,700 feet from the ground. A climber from another team reported that a climber had taken a 20-foot leader fall and hit the rock head first. Valley Rangers were called out and quickly started to plan the rescue.
Based on the reported injuries and need for immediate high-level medical care, the Incident Command Team launched a rescue plan involving the insertion of rescuers to Camp 4 by helicopter short haul. Yosemite Helicopter-551, piloted by Tim Lyons, arrived at El Capitan Meadow and launched with Helicopter Manager Eric Small, Short Haul Spotter Jeff Pirog, and Helicopter Rescue Team members Aaron Smith and Jack Hoeflich.
To safely rescue the injured patient, Helicopter-551 lifted off from El Capitan Meadow with Hoeflich suspended by short haul. Lyons positioned Hoeflich near Camp 4 with H-551’s rotors about 20 feet from the wall. While suspended from the helicopter, Hoeflich threw a coil of rope to the victim’s partner, pulled and secured himself to the wall and disconnected from the short haul line. Moments later, Smith was short hauled to the same position where Hoeflich threw a coil of rope to him so he could pull himself to the wall. The team rapidly set anchors, descended to the patient and packaged him in the litter.
Through precision pilot work and communication between spotters, pilot and rescuers, Lyons positioned the empty ring of the short haul line even with the rescuers, approximately 20-feet out from the wall of El Capitan. Using a collapsible pole, the rescuers were able to hook the short haul line and pull in the ring.
When Lyons was ready, the short haul ring was connected to the litter and Ranger Aaron Smith. Ranger Jack Hoeflich gave the command to Lyons to tension the line, and as the line became taut, Ranger Hoeflich cut the patient and Ranger Smith from the wall, releasing them to swing under the helicopter and away from the wall.
The helicopter returned to El Capitan Meadow and set down Ranger Smith and the patient, who was immediately transferred to an awaiting medical helicopter and flown to a trauma center, where he recovered from his injuries.
Tom Healy and Jack Hoeflich were recognized for their heroic actions taken on February 24, 2019:
On February 24, 2019, Yosemite Search and Rescue received a report of a hiker who had been badly struck by falling ice and rock in a closed area. The area is closed in wintertime due to severe hazards, including overhead falling rock and risk of sliding down a steep slope into a whitewater river below. Rescuers responded in an emergency attempt to save the hiker’s life.
Ranger Thomas Healy and Ranger Jack Hoeflich each independently entered the closed area, despite large blocks of rock and ice frequently falling around them. Each had deemed the area to be significantly hazardous, but placed accessing the injured hiker as a priority above their own safety.
Healy entered the closed area first, finding the injured hiker as well as four other hikers who had become trapped by the falling ice and rock. He immediately determined that the injured hiker was deceased; he then turned his attention to guiding the survivors to shelter, finding them a large boulder for protection from the falling debris. Hoeflich then arrived and entered the closed area alone, deeming the risk too great for the rest of the rescue team which he had led to the scene. He set up ropes through the most exposed areas in anticipation of extricating Healy and the survivors.
However, upon accessing the group, Hoeflich conferred with Healy and determined that extrication through the exposed area was unacceptably risky. They ordered a rescue helicopter; while awaiting it, Healy and Hoeflich comforted the traumatized survivors, and protected them from the ongoing hazards of the scene. The helicopter rescued the survivors, then hoisted out the deceased hiker, through a series of challenging hoist maneuvers in unsteady winds. As darkness approached, Healy and Hoeflich were the last to be extricated.
As the hoists of the rescuers themselves were occurring, a large avalanche occurred which directly threatened both rescuers and the helicopter itself, but all emerged unscathed. The quick thinking and critical actions of Tom and Jack saved multiple lives on this day.
Mr. Rory Farrell was recognized for heroic actions which helped save two lives on September 3, 2017:
Rory Farrell was also recognized by the Department of the Interior for his courageous and heroic actions to help save others in immediate danger. Mr. Farrell was in Yosemite National Park on vacation on Sunday, September 3, 2017 when he came upon an unfolding tragedy on the Big Oak Flat Road.
Mr. Farrell witnessed a large tree (over 2 feet in diameter) fall onto an occupied car, completely crushing the passenger compartment. He approached the vehicle and saw two unconscious victims trapped inside, an adult female in the front seat and a small child in the back seat. He gained access to the patients through a window; he assessed the female and found she was not breathing, so he gave her a rescue breath and directed her extrication by bystanders. He then focused on the child. Mr. Farrell pushed the roof up by bracing his back against the roof and pushing with his legs. This raised the roof enough that he was able to extricate the child and give a rescue breath.
He properly positioned the child, provided critical patient information to emergency dispatchers, and gave ongoing care to both patients until National Park Service personnel arrived on scene to provide further care and transport.
Mr. Farrell saved the lives of a mother and son that evening; he did so through the selfless act of stepping into harm’s way to provide aid to people he did not know. The situation he encountered was unquestionably hazardous, and his actions were heroic.
“Park Rangers and our aviation crew perform courageous acts that often save the lives of park visitors,” stated Chief Ranger Kevin Killian. “The critical actions, performed professionally under unpredictable and dangerous conditions by Aaron, Jack, Tom, Eric, Jeff and Tim were instrumental in saving a life. We are extremely proud to have these distinguished individuals as part of the Yosemite National Park staff.”
“Additionally, we are proud to honor and recognize the heroic actions of Rory Farrell,” stated Chief Ranger Killian. “Rory chose to risk his own safety in order to help save the lives of a mother and her son and provide critical medical aid until Park Rangers could arrive on the scene of an accident. We are proud to recognize Rory for his bravery.”
The Valor Award is presented to Department of the Interior employees who have demonstrated unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger. The act of heroism is not required to be related to official duties or to have occurred at the official duty station. Recipients receive a special certificate and citation signed by the Secretary and an engraved gold Valor award medal.
The Department of the Interior Citizen’s Award for Bravery is awarded to private citizens who risk their own lives to help others in need.
Last updated: October 2, 2019