Lost hunter survives overnight in near-freezing weather

William McDonnell, a hunter from Winchester, talks on the phone after he was located Sunday following an 18-hour rescue mission. Photo courtesy of the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office

William McDonnell, a 92-year-old hunter from Winchester, was located safely Sunday after an 18-hour rescue mission in the Laurel Run area of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.

McDonnell was located around 10:40 a.m. Sunday, Dellinger said, and has since been released from the hospital with no major injuries or concerns.

“That area is very remote … Some of the terrain is very steep and rocky,” said Capt. Wesley Dellinger, of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office was first contacted around 5:30 p.m. Saturday by McDonnell’s family members. Earlier in the day McDonnell had phoned home and said he would be getting back later than anticipated, but as the hours went by and subsequent calls failed to reach McDonnell, the family worried that his phone had died.

“His cellular devices and other forms of hiking GPS stuff — the battery’s life had expired, so that stuff, it was starting to fail or it had failed,” Dellinger said.

William McDonnell

Deputies responded to the forest and performed what Dellinger called “a hasty search of the area,” but soon opted to establish a command post at the Columbia Furnace Community Club.

The search extended through the night with the assistance of many area organizations, including 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, Harding County, West Virginia,  Sheriff’s Office, and others.

The search was also aided by a heat-sensing drone, a helicopter from Fairfax and multiple dog teams.

“He (McDonnell) was an avid hunter, very familiar to the area,” Dellinger said. “It had gotten dark and he didn’t have the appropriate equipment for nighttime conditions. So he couldn’t see, and with the GPS failing on him, he had no phone service, he just wasn’t able to find his way out.”

Dellinger said that McDonnell didn’t build shelter for the night, but rather kept moving to stay warm.

Weather data from nearby stations showed that temperatures dipped into the low 30s from Saturday night to Sunday morning.