EMA directors reflect on first search and rescue operation

Clay County EMA Director Torrey Williams after word came in that 23-year-old Victoria Hudson was found safe after missing for two days (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN
Staff Writer

It can be a thankless job, one often out of sight from the heroics of search and rescue operations, but when a plan has to be put into action, some people were hired to keep their hands on the wheel.

The two-day search for Victoria Hudson in southwest Clay County over the weekend saw agencies from around the region and state come together for a common goal of finding the missing college student alive. But for the inexperienced, an operation of this scale could result in a logistical nightmare if the right people and pieces are not in place.

Both EMA directors from Oktibbeha and Clay counties were faced with their first major search and rescue event when Hudson went missing. She previously made contact with her mother and 911, but her phone died at 7:33 a.m. Thursday morning on a remote and heavily-wooded Tennessee Valley Authority transmission line near the Cedarbluff community.

Torrey Williams was hired as Clay County EMA director in May and the search for Hudson marked his first major test in the position.

“It’s a lot of lessons learned, a lot of things to be corrected and we’re going to make those corrections, just blessed with the outcome the way it was,” Williams commented at the command post on Saturday.

Oktibbeha EMA Director Kristen Campanella replaced Shank Phelps as county EMA director in July 2017 and also faced her first large scale search and rescue event when the call came in.

The call from Hudson was first picked up by Oktibbeha County 911, which led to an initial search effort beginning near Pheba on Highway 389, roughly 14 miles northwest of where Hudson drove her white Jeep Liberty through a locked gate and wrecked in a shallow creek before setting off on foot.

“Of course with an emergency or disaster response there are lessons learned and takeaways that we have,” Campanella said. “With these, we will come together and make the determinations of what went right, what went wrong and what we can do to improve. Making these improvements is what will make our agencies better prepared for the next call for help.”

The first operation for both Williams, whose agency headed up the search efforts on the ground, and Campanella, was not without its moments where hope seemed to be out of reach. But they never gave up.

“There were times, as the day or days progressed the likelihood of someone surviving in those type of conditions, the likelihood was very slim,” Williams said.

Hudson managed to survive by drinking from creeks and ditches, while taking to deer stands at night to escape the elements. She was found Saturday morning walking along the power line in an area where searchers had already covered, but had returned to for a second look.

Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott said they believe when Hudson’s phone died and she set off on foot, she moved in the opposite direction of the search party.

“When it was announced she had been located and she was okay, a sigh of relief was felt by everyone that was involved,” Campanella said. “Unfortunately, good news is not often heard following incidents like this, especially considering the elements she endured in the woods over the last few days.”

Hudson was rescued, treated for dehydration at a local hospital and released Saturday afternoon.

“I am so proud of the continuous efforts made by all of the first responders that assisted to locate Ms. Hudson,” Campanella said.

During the search, which saw 50-60 volunteers and emergency personnel cover a rugged swath of hunting club property infested with snakes and wild hogs, several members of the organized effort were from Oktibbeha County.

“Oktibbeha County had several personnel searching from the time the initial call came in, until she was located,” Campanella said. “These men and women consisted of law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel that dropped what they were doing during a holiday week, to come join the search without hesitation.”

The Mississippi Task Force was also helped in large part by Clay County and city of West Point fire, police and EMS personnel.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office headed up the investigation.

With so many agencies brining in equipment and people to help with the efforts, the logistics could have been cumbersome. This provided an early lesson for Williams during his first major event.

“One of the things that’s most important is having a place we all can come together,” Williams said.

The initial emergency personnel on scene Thursday set up a makeshift command post at a vacant gas station on Highway 50, before moving to a larger location off Mhoon Valley Road near the crash site on Friday.

The elements, along with the logistics, also posed difficulties for emergency crews during the search.

“It’s important to take into consideration weather conditions and things like that and maybe somewhere for our responders to go to cool off and better prepare them and better prepare their plans to have plans already in place,” Williams said.

Extreme heat and humidity made for a daunting two days for search crews as they trekked through overgrowth, but storms on Friday afternoon put a damper on efforts going into the evening hours.

“Review your plans, review your comprehensive emergency plans, know your responders, and know your key people, especially the ones that can make stuff happen,” Williams said, offering advice to next EMA director who may have to face their first search and rescue event.

Campanella echoed Williams about the collaborative effort and said it speaks to the true nature of a community when a search has a positive outcome.

“Coming together to help your neighbors in a time of crisis, it is just what we do,” she said