John Doyle's Panamanian Adventure

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This wiki page served as a status and information page about the search and rescue efforts to recover John Doyle, who disappeared in the mountains of Panama on Sunday afternoon (Aug. 26, 2007), approximately 5 PM Panama time (3 PM California/PDT). He was located and recovered over two days later on Tuesday, Aug. 28.

What Happened

John and Marie were on vacation in El Valle, Panama. John went for a run on a trail yesterday (Sun) at 3 pm and was supposed to be back by 5 pm. When he wasn't back by 7 pm, they knew something was wrong and they started looking for him shortly after that. They searched until 1 am, but had to call off the search due to rain and clouds (plus darkness). They began the search again Monday morning and continued all day Monday. Initial contact is believed to have been made Monday, and he was located approximately (via shouting) by search teams on Tuesday morning. A quite massive effort was mounted to pinpoint his location on Tuesday, with many people, dogs, helicopter, the works. Tuesday he was located, extracted, and in the evening, finally transported to a hospital in Panama City.

Marie and John in 2004

The El Valle area is a settled location, with quite a few Americans, but it is relatively wild in flora/fauna. Here is a virtual tour of the region with pictures, courtesy of another hotel in the region.

John's Summary of the Events, after his recovery

At 3pm Sunday I went for a quick hike suggested in Frommer's (mostly excellent) guide, telling Marie I'd be back at 5pm. It was an "easy to moderate" 2.5 hr loop whose highlight was a peak roughly 600m up from the hotel (at 1200m) that had views of both oceans and El Valle de Anton. The route up was wet and muddy with lots of use of hands and a few short roped spots but safe and non-technical but didn't seem "moderate" so I was expecting the return route to be easier. I got to the top at 4ish but accidentally cut my right hand on some vegetation near the top. That limited my use of my right hand (and started the cascading failure), but also my left to keep the blood from flowing too freely.

I decided (unwisely, continuing the cascade) that using the up route to go down needed too much hand work so looked for the continuation of the (as it turns out apparently nonexistent) "loop" and pursued the most promising path down. I proceeded just a bit on what increasingly appeared not to be a trail but a mix of vegetation and fairly sheer cliffs of rock with a stream. About when I was deciding to go back, the vegetation gave way and I slid down and fell off a cliff. I don't know how far I dropped but I tumbled several times before hitting an outcropping and stopping the fall. (I'm hoping to get an exact location where I was ultimately found and figure out what route I took on a topo map.)

I was conscious, but pretty sure this fall would ultimately be fatal as it seemed to be too far and have too many body hits to be survivable. Initially I couldn't move anything, but gradually was able to start moving at least my hands, feet, and head, which was encouraging. I had deep cuts on my head, lower back, and right elbow, and these were bleeding freely. (Later analysis of my hematocrit drop of a 41 to 31 suggests I lost about 25% of my blood volume through bleeding. This seems consistent with my observations, though much of that bleeding ended up in lots of large hematomas, the rest was left on the hillside.) Everything else hurt and my right leg was nearly useless. I could wiggle it but nothing worked. My left side seemed mostly ok (I realized later that this was just relative) so I could crawl on my butt using the left hand and foot, dragging the rights. My lower back was a mess so I had to avoid scraping it on anything.

It appeared that I was maintaining consciousness ok (well, more or less like usual for me). The bleeding slowed quickly (the coagulation cascade worked robustly), and I was near a streambed/waterfall so I might be able to have a water source. So I assumed this could be survivable and there was maybe an hour of daylight left so I wanted to maximize my chances of rescue.

I "crawled" down the mountain to a point that seemed promising. It showed signs of human landscaping, had a stream/waterfall, a place to sit, and had a broad view of the large valley below. (It turned out to be far from roads though.) It was dark, foggy, and rainy so I yelled for help until I decided I should save my voice for daylight.

On Monday morning I started yelling "help" around daylight (6am) and various things hoping to get the attention of rescuers that I could hear above me and in the valley, but by the time darkness (6pm) was approaching there was no sign of rescuers. Having not slept and eaten in 24 hours, and lost lots of blood, I was hallucinating distant rescuers that were unlikely to exist. But lots of people heard me but could not locate me.

I moved around Tuesday nite using the twilight and then the (fortunately) full moon to crawl to a hopefully more promising location, yelling all the time to attract attention. On Tues morning I was heard and spotted, but the rugged terrain meant it was afternoon when rescuers arrived. It was getting dark by the time I was moved, heroically, by a team of dozens of people to an ambulance that took me to a local clinic for a quick checkup and some shots and IV fluids and then on to Panama City about an hour away, arriving in the middle of the night.

The Panama hospital and doctors were fantastic. They cleaned the wounds, started IV antibiotics, and confirmed by CT scan that there was only minimal bone fracture. I'm swollen into very strange shapes but can sort of walk. Very fortunate all around.

There were some weird and/or wonderful things that I'll try to write down. Everyone was fabulous, lots of people I don't even know about yet. I had bizarre visual hallucinations on Tues nite when objects were too dark or distant to resolve unambiguously, probably due to no sleep, no food, blood loss, and exhaustion. The ICU is interesting from the patient sides, as is the rescue process, which I won't understand until I can compare notes with the rescuers. In the ICU my heart exhibited and then lost a new but mild electrical problem that was probably unrelated to the accident but was due to my (recently diagnosed) sarcoidosis (this has been an interesting year medically).

Past Updates (in reverse order, most recent first)

  • Friday, 31 Aug, 14:15 PDT (Richard): John is now in a regular room at the hospital and the recovering is going well. He has *lots* of bruises and walking takes a lot of effort, but it looks like everything is coming along well. There's a phone in the room but I don't know the number; John does have access to his e-mail (they have cool IP phones in the room and the "data port" is an ethernet jack). Best guess is that John will fly back to Atlanta early next week.
  • Thursday, 30 Aug, 13:00 PDT (Mike): Nothing new today, except for a few additional clarifications from Richard on a couple of points in the story:
  • It's now confirmed John was never up in a tree. The earlier reports must have been the result of what the helicopter first saw; John must have appeared to be in a tree from their vantage point. He was in a steep ravine.
  • In the end, he was driven to the hospital in Panama City and not taken by helicopter as was expected at first. Richard wrote in an email: "The helicopter story is something of a saga, with many twists and turns. There was a helicopter there in the end (lots of twists and turns before this). They can't fly past 6 pm without permission from the governor. We get the permission. Then it starts to get rainy, so they have to fly to another town, where they will wait for the ambulance. Then we are told that they will be staying in the town and we should use the ambulance the entire way. In the end, there was no helicopter [in the transportation to the hospital] but it is really unclear how it was decided."
  • Wednesday, 29 Aug, 13:00 PDT (Richard): Just got back from the hospital and talking with John. He sounds just like his usual self and had a good lunch. He's still in intensive care (just to be safe, I think), but will probably be moved to a regular room tomorrow. He has pretty big cuts on his arm, the back of his head and his back, but looks and sounds great.
Mountain in El Valle that John was climbing on. At the time of this photo, John is on the back side of the hill. The helicopter is on its way up to take a look at the location. Photo taken ~1300 local time, 28 Aug 07.
A few corrections to the second hand story given earlier:
  • John got to the top of the trail (a point where you can see both oceans on a clear day) around 4 pm. He had read that there was a loop trail and the path seemed wider at the top than the bottom, so he thought there might be a different way down. At some point he cut his hand (possibly on a bush) and it was bleeding quite badly, so he decide he should head back down straight away. At this point (maybe 4:30?) he fell down a rocky hill and bounced several times on the way down. He thinks it was maybe 30 meters? He felt blood on his head and his hand was still bleeding, plus at this point his right leg was injured (probably a very bad sprain, but we don't know yet)
  • It's not clear that John ever heard the people calling out to him on Monday, although he was calling out.
We don't know yet how long John will have to stay in the hospital. He is not currently able to receive calls and we are not sure if there is Internet access available at the hospital.
  • Wednesday, 7:30 PDT (Richard): They did a thorough examination of John last night and it appears that he fared amazingly well, given the circumstances. He has one small fracture in his back (in a pretty good place, according to Marie) and no other broken bones. He has some wounds that got infected while he was in the mountains, but these have now been cleaned up. It appears that he lost quite a bit of blood while he was in the mountains, so it was very good that he was recovered when he was. Between the environment, his infections, the loss of blood and the lack of food, he might not have lasted another day.
From [1], 2007-08-28
According to Marie, John says that he fell on the trail quite early in his run (perhaps within the first hour). He then tried to make his way back, but fell again and hurt himself much more seriously. He started calling out at that point and trying to move around on one leg to a place where people could see him better. He drank from streams, but had nothing to eat. On Monday, after spending the night on the moutain, he heard the shouts from rescue teams and shouted back. However, the rescue teams were not able to locate John (it was foggy and raining) and they were not positive they had heard a human voice. He continued to try to move around to areas were he could be seen better. On Tuesday morning, the search teams headed back to the area where they thought they had heard something and made contact with John. He was in a very inaccessible place and it took several hours for the teams to find a way to reach him. Once they found him (perhaps around noon local time), it was extremely difficult to get him off of the mountainside and onto trails where they could bring him back. He finally got to where the ambulance was waiting for him around 7 pm local time.
The local community in El Valle and the Panamanian rescue organizations were amazing in their support for John and helping in the search. People from all over the community joined search teams and risked their own lives to help find John. One of the members of group that extracted John said it was the most difficult rescue he could remember in his 15 years of experience. Without the extraordinary help from the town and the rescuers, John would not be back with us.
  • Tuesday, 21:15 PDT (Richard Murray) John has been checked in to the Punta Pacifica hospital, after being first checked out at a clinic in El Valle and then driven by ambulance to Panama City (about 100 kilometers). Marie is with him and John is in good spirits (but hungry). Not clear yet whether he has any broken bones (may just be torn ligaments); he is able to move his arms and right leg, although with limited motion due to lots of pulled muscles.
  • Tuesday, 17:00 PDT (Mike Hucka) Just received email from Richard: John is out and down the hill with the rescuers. Richard's short note mentioned John being in an ambulance, but I am unclear about whether he is being taken by ambulance to the hospital, or by helicopter (previously there was talk about using a helicopter). More news as we learn it. In any case, it seems clear he is (or will shortly be) on his way to the hospital in Panama City.
  • Tuesday 15:30 PDT (Richard Murray) John is currently headed down the hill in a stretcher. It is taking a lot of time because it is rough terrain and they need to go slow. Marie has talked to John on a cell phone and he sounds OK, given the circumstances. He should be down the mountain in another hour, at which point he and Marie will be taken by helicopter to a hospital (Puente Pacifico?) in Panama City (30 minute flight). Other details:
    • According to some of the rescue team that we talked to, John was not actually up in a tree. Might have been what it looked like from the vantage point of the helicopter.
    • Marie asked John if he could move his arms and legs and he said yes. He didn't think his leg was broken, but the rescue team is pretty sure.
    • The people here in Panama have been absolutely fantastic. They are doing so much to help bring all of this to a speed resolution. It is really wonderful and hard to describe how much everyone is pitching in.
  • Tuesday 12:20 PDT update from our contacts at Emory:

"The helicopter flew over and spotted John -- in a tree! The crew wanted to see whether there might be an easier way to reach him -- and the result is that the ground searchers are climbing down to make a clearing nearby to make a helicopter landing possible. Marie said Panama emptied the zoo of most of the zoo workers to turn out more people to help in this search and the ground work that has to be done. Once rescued, he will be flown to Panama City.

She was standing with a Navy nurse who had a big chest full of medical supplies ready. The helicopter is back at the hotel at the moment (crew getting fed) while they wait for the landing to be cleared. Marie is concerned that the fog is beginning to creep back -- but she is so relieved and thanked everyone for all that has been done. She said that once she realized John will be rescued, she realized how exhausted she is. One cannot imagine."

  • Tuesday, 10:20 am (Mike Hucka): A Panamanian military helicopter has arrived on the scene. Marie is on her way to the accident site now.
  • Tuesday, 9:40 am (Mike Hucka): according to an email directly from Marie, they've located John in a steep ravine that is making difficult an extraction by hand. They are trying to get helicopter help. Here is what Marie wrote (sent 9:20):

I know everyone is anxious for John, and I can feel that. He has at least a broken leg and ribs, but the rescuers cannot see him yet. There are two teams trying from two sides of the crevice, but they are estimating it will take all day to get him moved out, and the helicopters which would help, are stuck in an embassy bureaucracy. Since John is talking I am optimistic that this will ultimately be a good story. But there are dangers in moving people and the move will not be trivial in terms of his stabilization. Thanks...keep rooting for us from afar. Richard should be here in about an hour.

  • Tuesday, 7:30 am: (Hall Daily): Marie reports that John has been found alive and that they are trying to extract him by helicopter. John's condition is still unknown (to us here).

"Marie called an Emory colleague: JOHN HAS BEEN FOUND!!!! The search parties, searching and calling back and forth, are getting responses from him and are drawing close to pinpointing his exact location. At the moment they have not precisely found him but most likely will at any moment. Marie is rushing to a small clinic there to try to be sure he gets first aid when he is brought in. She can certainly start a line if he needs IV fluids, etc. It's not clear yet whether he needs more than first aid."

  • Monday, 8:20 pm (Hall Daily): from one of Marie's colleagues at Emory:

"I have just spoken with Marie. A pharmacist has given her some medication to help her sleep, but she sounded better. She reported some heartening information. First, this is a cloud forest, not a rain/jungle forest, and the snakes and other bad critters are much more benign. She said the word is out among the inhabitants of this town about John’s disappearance, and some locals have come forward wanting to help. One is a highly trained naturalist in the area (American), who was in the search party that communicated with John (shouting in the distance?) earlier today. Because of what John said in this shouting with the searchers, Marie believes it was he. The area where he went to run is very mountainous. They seem to believe John fell off a very steep drop, and is now difficult to reach by foot. This naturalist knows the area extremely well and said there are steep drops and deep places -- he thought a helicopter would be helpful both in spotting John and in helping to get him out – otherwise difficult. They have told Marie that he is not likely to get hypothermic. Another local (part of the national search team, I think she said) is connected with the Red Cross there, and the Red Cross is supplying dogs to search – on their way to the town now, Marie thinks. She has been told that helicopters will be up early tomorrow. She said John went to run and was not carrying his cell phone or even his water bottle.
"Marie is appreciative of everything that is being done to help.

  • Monday, 7 pm (Richard): I talked to Marie at 7 pm PDT (9 pm Panama time). They have called off the search for the night, but some of the local Indians are apparently continuing to look. I will be flying down to Panama tomorrow to represent Caltech and help out in whatever way I can.
  • Monday, 6 pm (Hall Daily): Sen. Chambliss' staff talked to Mike Hammett, American Citizen's Services Chief a moment ago. The rule is that they normally wait 24 hours to search and 72 to do a massive search but they have moved that up and a massive search is underway. They contacted the Defense Corp and they agreed to send up helicopters however, they only have about an hour of daylight left. They will resume the search effort in the morning. The hotel that Dr. Csete is staying at agreed to put the pilots up free of charge. Mr. Hammett said there are many different groups conducting a foot search.
  • Monday, 4:00 pm (from Hall Daily): The fog reportedly rolled back into the area before helicopter(s) could be deployed today. If weather permits, they'll try again in the morning. An additional search party, however, was sent into the area within the last hour or so.
  • Monday, 3:30 pm: Richard talked to Marie at ~3:00 pm (5:00 pm in Panama). They have not found John yet and the fog is starting to come back in, so the search crews will have to return home. There is a Panamanian Navy helicopter that is scheduled to help, but can't come in because of weather. There are apparently also US Navy helicopters a few hours away (according to Marie) and they should be able to join the search as soon as the weather permits (might be tomorrow at this point). Marie's brother will fly out Tue or Wed (not sure which) to join her.
  • Monday, 2 pm: John and Marie are in Panama on vacation and John is missing in the mountains. He went for a run on a trail yesterday (Sun) at 3 pm and was supposed to be back by 5 pm. When he wasn't back by 7 pm, they knew something was wrong and they started looking for him shortly after that. They searched until 1 am, but had to call off the search due to rain and clouds (plus darkness). They began search again this morning, but they have not found him yet.

Other actions that have been taken:

  • Caltech has contacted Congressman Schiff's office, who immediately contacted the US Embassy in Panama. They have assured us that all available resources will be made used to find John.
  • Jean-Lou Chameau, Ed Stolper, Dave Rutledge, Dean Curry, Hall Daily (Government Relations) and others at Caltech have been informed of the situation and are working to insure that all available resources are available to help find John.

Newspaper stories and other reports

  • Article in Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday (Found 2007-08-28 by Pablo Parillo)
    • The end of the article above is inaccurate. The rescue was not done by helicopter (it could not get close due to the possibility of the rotor wash knocking down branches onto John). John was taken to Panama City by ambulance, leaving El Valle around 8 pm and arriving at the hospital around 10 pm (local time).

Information about the region

Panama's time zone is UTC-5, which is 2 hours ahead of California/PDT and the same as the US central time zone.

Los Mandarinos hotel

Link to regional map of Panama. John and Marie are in the Coclé region.

Link to virtual tour of El Valle de Anton put together by another hotel there.

Los Mandarinos Boutique-Spa & Hotel is the hotel where they are staying. It's roughly 100 km from Panama City. Here are the GPS coordinates for the town, according to Carlos M. Celis from the Los Mandarinos:

latitude 8 deg 35 min - 8 deg 37 min north
longitude 80 deg 09 min - 80 deg 06 min south

Location on map: in Google in Mapquest

General region descriptions taken from different places:

  • "El Valle De Anton is one of the most sought after locations for Expats relocating to Panama. The year-round average high temperature is 20° C (68° F), and the average nighttime minimum is a comfortable 16° C (61° F), there is little variation between summer and winter temperatures, the major difference being the amount of wind and rain from season to season. At an altitude of 2200 meters (7217.85 ft) El Valle is nestled in the long extinct second largest volcanic crater in the world (three by five mile crater). When you begin your descend into the crater from the rim you will notice that it is indeed situated in a round bowl of jagged mountain peaks. You will also notice an overall green appearance to the area due to the richness of the volcanic soil lending itself to the abundance of flowers that bloom there year round. It is very refreshing in contrast to Panama City where the building and houses fill the lots from corner to corner barely allowing sunlight to pass between them. El Valle is spread out with large lots; an abundance of trees and grass separating the well maintained houses. Many of homes are owned by local residents whose names could make up a Who's Who of Panama book." Source
El Valle de Anton
  • "In the province of Cocle. According to geologists, El Valle is the crater of a dormant volcano, probably the largest in Central America. With a cool and pleasant climate, his picturesque valley rises 600 meters above sea level. This small town has a great variety of attractions such as Indian petroglyphs, hot springs, waterfalls, rock climbing and a variety of hikes for all abilities." Source
  • More descriptions of the region and more pictures available here and here