‘I never was lost’: Hunter recounts 27-hour plight in the woods

Bill McDonnell, 92, of Winchester, leans on his Jeep outside his home in Winchester on Tuesday. McDonnell went hunting last weekend in the Laurel Run area of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, got lost and spent the night in the woods. McDonnell never felt he was in danger and never panicked as he used his Army training to get out of the woods. Rich Cooley/Daily

Bill McDonnell, 92 years old, parked his Jeep in the Wolf Gap forest area at 7 a.m. Saturday morning and hiked up the mountain on a solo hunting trip. He didn’t return that night, and the ensuing 16-hour rescue mission concluded only when the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office spotted him with a high-resolution drone camera.

“I never was lost. I knew exactly where I was at,” McDonnell said Tuesday. “I just ran out of time.”

McDonnell spent 27 hours on the mountain in total, and slept in the brush as the temperature dipped into freezing conditions.

“Started out, no intention of going to the top of the mountain. Saw this trail, said, ‘I wonder — I don’t believe I’ve ever been on this,'” McDonnell said. He has been on most trails in the area, and the idea of a new path was tantalizing.

“I’ll just follow it a little way and then I’ll go back,” he said, “‘Cause I didn’t want to go to no tops of mountains or nothing like that.”

Of course, he wound up on the top of the mountain.

“It just gradually went up. You didn’t know you were going higher and higher. Before I knew it, I was on the top,” McDonnell said.

He called home to his wife, Joanna, 92, around 1 p.m. and told her it would take him about four hours to get back to his truck. As the sun inched closed and closer to the horizon and she heard no word from him, Joanna texted their son, Billy, who was at a James Madison University football game.

“Billy, you better come home,” Joanna said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Your daddy is not home yet, and he’s back up in the mountain somewhere, it’s pitch dark, he can’t find his way back home,” she responded.

Joanna called the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office at 5:30 p.m., and they quickly launched a rescue effort to find the missing hunter. They set up a command center at the Columbia Furnace Community Center and dispatched teams of rescue personnel and tracking dogs.

They were joined by a host of other area organizations: Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue; Virginia Department of Emergency Management; Frederick County Sheriff’s Office; Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office; Blue and Gray search and rescue group; Hardy County, West Virginia, Sheriff’s Office; and many others.

Meanwhile, McDonnell’s cell phone had died.

“Every five minutes when I’m up in the forest, (my wife is) calling me. ‘Where you at? What are you doing? Have you shot one yet?’ And the damn battery gave out,” McDonnell said.

Lugging his Knight Muzzleloader, ammunition, pack with food and water, walking stick and “about 25-30 pounds too much right here,” McDonnell said while grabbing his gut, the hunter worked his way back down to the base of the mountain and was faced with a dilemma.

A foothill blocked his path back to the road. Several years ago, trees on the hill had been clearcut and heavy brush crept in. McDonnell could either go around the long way, or cut straight across the overgrown land.

“If I’ve got a 50-50 chance of losing something, I invariably will pick the wrong one. Never fails,” McDonnell said. “I say, ‘Well, I’m going to take the shortcut.'”

He started up the hill and made slower time than he anticipated. After an hour and a half, McDonnell was only two-thirds up the hill, and the night had grown so dark he couldn’t tell where to place his feet. The brush blocked him in on every side.

McDonnell considered barging through blind, but the risk of slipping and falling on the uneven ground was too great. And he had already covered 15 miles, including accidentally summitting the mountain, and his legs were aching.

His old Army training kicked in. He made a bed out of the brush to keep himself 4-5 inches off of the cold ground. He had warm clothes and sturdy boots, and he wiggled his toes to keep them warm. Intermittently, he was even able to sleep.

“I probably got more sleep than she did!” McDonnell said in his home in Winchester Tuesday, pointing to Joanna.

“I didn’t get no sleep at all,” Joanna said. “I was up all night.”

At 2 a.m. Sunday, Frederick County Sheriff Office officials showed up on her doorstep asking for McDonnell’s key to his Jeep. They were looking for something with McDonnell’s scent to give to the search dogs. Joanna said the officers stayed for an additional 20 minutes to clam her down.

McDonnell never worried for his own safety, even though nearby weather stations showed temperatures dipping into the low 30s that night, and the temperate possibly dropped even lower on the mountain.

For context, this is the same man who celebrated his 80th birthday by going skydiving.

“The only thing I was worried about was right there,” McDonnell said, nodding at Joanna. “I knew that she could have had a heart attack.”

At one point a search and rescue helicopter that had been dispatched to the area shone its light on him. He took off his neon orange hat and waved it, but the helicopter flew on.

When dawn broke on the mountain Sunday morning, McDonnell woke to a bittersweet sight.

“As soon as it started to get daylight the next morning, lo and behold, all I’d have had to done was go about another 100 feet and I’d have been out of that damn brush,” he said.

After hiking through that last overgrown stretch, he had only a few miles left to hike downhill to his truck. He started on his way down and came across a German Shepherd in police dog attire. Then he heard people shouting his name.

“BILL!”

“WILLIAM!”

“MCDONNELL!”

McDonnell had been spotted by a Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office’s drone. The department dispatched the drone in the area at 9:30 a.m. Sunday and spotted him about 20 minutes later, which the department said is its first successful application of the drone since they bought it in September.

“This new technology allows our deputies to more efficiently search for missing persons … and bring them home safe,” said Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman. “We are pleased we were able to assist Shenandoah County and safely return this man to his family.”

McDonnell’s orange hat made it easier for the drone’s high-resolution camera to spot him, said Kraig Troxell, spokesman for Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. Troxell also said that the full drone package, which encompasses the necessary training, add-ons and the drone itself, cost the department $94,000.

The Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t yet have drone technology, but Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said the department is  looking for cost estimates.

“It is something that we’ve talked about now for the last couple of years,” Carter said. “It’s another air asset, another tool, and it’s just now starting to be used.”

After meeting with the search dog, McDonnell eventually was met by members of the rescue team. Two young men held his arms on either side, helping to escort him down.

“They hindered me. I mean, good God. Finally, I broke loose,” McDonnell said. Later, at the hospital, McDonnell said that the men told the nurse: “Ninety-two years old — I don’t think we could keep up to him, because he broke loose and charged ahead.”

When he got to the bottom of the mountain, McDonnell saw a line of bumper-to-bumper cars stretching all the way down the forest road, with the parking lots full to bursting. He asked a medic if they were all here for a Christmas party, or something.

“No. You see all these cars? They’re here for you,” the medic said.

“What the hell they here for me for?” McDonnell said.

Against his wishes, McDonnell was convinced to go to the hospital to verify he was in good health. And when he reunited with Joanna, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I was a little apprehensive. I didn’t know whether she would kill me or what,” McDonnell said. “I knew I was going to be in trouble.”

But instead Joanna just hugged and kissed him, and made him promise not to go hunting alone again.

“You ain’t going (hunting) no more,” Joanna said.

“Oh, I’m going hunting,” McDonnell said.

“You’re not going by yourself,” she fired back.

He finally agreed, but said, “I didn’t want to. I was under duress.”

“If you gonna go by yourself now, I said, you keep on going,” Joanna said. “Just keep on going, and don’t turn around and come back home.”

The two laughed, and smiled at each other.

Joanna and Bill will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary next May. Joanna had one piece of advice to share: “Love each other, and listen to each other.”

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