The temperature was falling, fuel in the search helicopter was running low, and rescuers on the ground had no sign of the man lost in the “Minnesota quicksand” of the bog.
So Craig Benz and Jim Englin made an unusual call — turn off all the lights.
The chopper, piloted by Englin, and the search parties went dark. With the help of night vision goggles, Benz spotted a brief glimmer about a mile away. It was the light of the missing man’s cellphone.
That was enough for the two Minnesota State Patrol officers to swoop in and pull him to safety.
Benz and Englin, both chief warrant officers for the patrol’s flight division, were honored Monday, April 29, with Life Saving Awards for the May 2012 rescue.
The rescue took place in Hubbard County, but both officers are from Dakota County. Benz, 37, is from Apple Valley. Englin, 44, is from West St. Paul.
A third Dakota County officer, trooper Kristie Sue Hathaway of Eagan, received the same award for helping stabilize an Eagan woman who was struggling to breathe while an ambulance was on its way.
For Benz and Englin, the call for help came while the two were making a nightly patrol, during which they assist troopers on the ground in a variety of situations.
It was around 11 p.m. May 11. A man had gotten stuck in the mud of a bog that afternoon. The man’s father tried to get him out, but succeeded only in getting an all-terrain vehicle stuck in the mud, too.
Benz and Englin arrived after midnight.
The low temperature for the night was around 40 degrees and the man had been outside for more than eight hours, so they wanted to move quickly.
“We just didn’t think that this guy was going to be able to last,” Englin said.
But the heat rising from the bog was wreaking havoc with their thermal imaging equipment, and their spotlight found nothing. After 40 minutes in the air — with about 20 to go before the fuel gauge hit empty — the man was nowhere in sight.
That’s when Benz and Englin switched tactics, darkening the helicopter inside and out and asking everyone on the ground to do the same.
The missing man was in intermittent contact via phone. “We just asked him, ‘hold your cellphone up,’ ” Englin said.
He did. It was a glimmer in the distance — “I just picked it up just for a second,” Benz said — but in the rural darkness and with the aid of night-vision goggles, they spotted it a mile away, well south of the area the ground search was focused on.
They got to the man in short order. Getting him in the helicopter, however, was another matter. His core body temperature had fallen to 89 degrees, putting him in hypothermia and leaving him disoriented. When the helicopter neared, he tried to run away from it.
“He was out of sorts, that’s for sure,” Benz said.
Englin pulled off a tricky landing, bringing the helicopter to a hover just on top of the mud to keep it from getting stuck — the first time he’d attempted such a maneuver.
Benz hopped out. Immediately he sunk to his knees in the bog.
To corral the man, he wound up handcuffing him and lugging him back into the helicopter, which flew to a waiting ambulance.
The two later “got a really nice letter from his family,” Englin said.
He said the dramatic nature of the rescue didn’t strike them until after the fact.
“You kind of look at each other and go, did we just really do that?” he said. “It’s kind of like practicing and practicing for the big game, and you finally get to do something with your training.”
Benz said the rescue — and the award — is a credit to the entire patrol.
“Any one of the pilots down here would have done the same thing,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to be recognized for something that really is just part of our job.”