November 03, 2002 11:00 pm
Mischelle Hileman ().
Mischelle Hileman ().

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

WALLOWA — "Miraculous" described a Wallowa woman surviving eight days in a record-setting cold snap with no food or fire and having fired all 8 rounds of her ammunition to no avail.

Mischelle Hileman, 39, suffering from severe exposure, is in critical but stable condition in a Boise hospital.

After what was described as her "last night of fighting," Hileman was found about 10:45 a.m. Sunday by Bill Lehr, 44. Lehr had organized a second search by a handful of hometown friends and family. They held out hope after officials had scaled back the search.

Hundreds of hours had been invested in the official search, Sunday through Thursday. Resources had included dogs and helicopters, but little hope was held out for survival after several days in such conditions.

After the search was scaled back, family and friends took over to continue the search.

Hileman was ultimately found within what could have been a 40-minute hike during good conditions, Lehr said.

"I was just led right to her. It was absolutely amazing," he said.

"Something kept pulling us to go to this area," Lehr said after he and Marilyn Seifert, Wallowa postmaster, broke off and looked into the treacherously steep McAllister Creek canyon while other groups were doing a grid search on top.

Lehr was following the creek downstream from where he had checked Saturday.

He was "very concerned" to see fresh tracks of at least two cougars that had just gone through there. That kept him "real attentive" and his firearm at the ready.

Lehr heard something down the creekbed — like breathing — maybe a cougar. "Then it sounded more like a sigh," he said. "I couldn't believe it. Something told me to call out her name."

An alert and spirited Hileman answered. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Lehr remembers Hileman saying.

"I couldn't believe my ears either," Lehr replied.

Hileman, with blackened toes and unable to move her legs, had fallen and had two puncture wounds in her left leg.

She initially dug in a makeshift shelter some 60 feet upslope from the canyon bottom and covered up with brush. However, the canyon wall was so steep she kept sliding down.

Somehow, she maneuvered herself to the bottom, sliding under a barbed wire fence. On the canyon bottom, she again dug into the earth and covered herself with bows, sticks and brush to make a shelter under the trees. She was found below both shelters, right on the creek, where she'd cracked the ice to get water.

The terrain was too steep to get horses in. Seifert made her way down the canyon side, built a fire and held Hileman to get body warmth. Lehr scaled the canyonside to radio for help.

Emergency medical technicians from the Wallowa ambulance arrived with a stretcher and began caring for Hileman as Jim Zollman cut a landing zone for an Oregon Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter dispatched from Pendleton.

A medic was lowered from the hovering helicopter, then Hileman's litter was drawn up.

Hileman was flown to St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.

Hileman had hunted the same area earlier in deer season. She returned with her father to hunt elk there. They had spent a week hunting in brilliant Indian summer weather. She had hiked 15 miles on Oct. 26. On Sunday she was going to walk some 40 minutes along a fence line. She was not prepared to stay overnight. When she failed to meet up with her father, the search was initiated.

Hileman reportedly could hear 4-wheelers looking for her, and could hear Seifert, but because of the "hole" she was in, no one could hear her.

Mike and Lori Waters and her father Richard Makins were among the friends from Wallowa, "the handful that held out hope," Lori said about the people using their own radios, 4-wheelers, horses and other equipment.

"A good Christian man with an angel heart," is how Lori descried Lehr.

"He handed out flyers in town, coordinated the whole thing, graphed, and mapped it out," she said.

It was Lehr's first search.

"I learned a lot on the (initial) search," for which Lehr volunteered, heading up teams on foot doing grid work. He admitted that his natural searching instinct as a hunter also helped.

"I knew the area, and I knew Mischelle," he said. He had hunted the area since 1968.

"Marilyn and I picked up the ball and kept the search going. We just really felt for the family."

Following grid work, the friends and family "kept expanding on top and working our way out," he said. "I was feeling so strong in my spirit about this."

Lehr was able to employ a tactic he had not previously used in the initial search.

"I wanted to do some preliminary loose quick search then follow up with grid work," he said. So as others methodically searched a grid about 10 feet apart, Lehr and Seifert scouted the area about which he had the strong feeling.

"It was an awesome day, a tremendous, huge, unbelievable experience," he said "We just look at each other and say, ‘Wow.' "

"We're so happy she's alive," he said. "The whole community worked that extremely hard, rough terrain. Folks never complained."