ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico – A lost hiker who was killed during a rescue in a helicopter crash last week called emergency services repeatedly, but the calls were initially routed to non-emergency lines that were not equipped with technology that could help locate her, authorities said.
Megumi Yamamoto, a University of New Mexico graduate student from Japan, dialed for help after getting lost in the Sangre de Cristo mountains when she and her boyfriend became separated. She and State Police Sgt. Andy Tingwall were killed when the helicopter sent to rescue her crashed in stormy weather the night of June 9.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano said Wednesday such misrouted calls have not occurred since technology that uses cell phone tower signals to narrow a person's location to within a 2-square-mile area — called triangulation — was installed a little more than a year ago.
Solano said the problem is being investigated.
"We do want to get the 911 system where it works," he said. "We're very concerned that it didn't work right."
Regardless of whether the call system worked, Yamamoto was found quickly compared to most lost hikers in the mountains north of Santa Fe, Solano said. He added that he was unsure whether the rescue would have been successful without the call problems.
Despite the phone system problem, the hiker was transferred to a state police dispatcher on her third call — within about six minutes of her initially trying to reach emergency services, according to recordings released by the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center.
The state police later sent the helicopter to search for the hiker despite not having her exact location. State police knew the general location of the hiker, however.
Solano said about seven calls that Yamamoto made were routed to non-emergency lines at the Regional Emergency Communications Center, which handles all emergency calls for the region. Typically, such emergency calls should be immediately routed through emergency lines.
"If there's any lesson to be learned from this ... it's sometimes we rely too much on technology. We maybe could have started the search and rescue a little earlier," Solano said.
The people answering the non-emergency lines also were trained as emergency dispatchers, according to Solano. A man answering Yamamoto's first two calls apparently had difficulty understanding her because of her Japanese accent. He told her to call the universal emergency number 911, but took her cell phone number.
"I am lost. I don't know where I am now," Yamamoto said during her first call. She tried to tell the man she was in the Pecos Wilderness.
The man said at one point: "I can barely understand you. What are you looking for?"
During a later call that was answered by a woman, a man can be heard in the background saying, "I told her over and over to call 911."
After a few calls, the dispatchers realized the calls were being misrouted, but they had Yamamoto keep trying in an attempt to get the calls answered by 911 emergency lines that had the triangulation equipment.
Solano said the investigation is focusing on a suspected technological problem. The communications center will be working with area telephone and cell phone companies statewide to solve the problem, he said. Initial investigations show that the dispatchers followed the proper protocols, he said.
"Everybody was trying the best they could. Nobody was slacking," Solano said.
A precise location for Yamamoto wasn't provided to state police when their rescue helicopter left to find her, New Mexico State Police spokesman Peter Olson said.
The helicopter crew knew only that she was in the area of Lake Katherine, but as it turned out Yamamoto was near another lake — Spirit Lake, Olson said.
At some point, the DPS dispatcher could hear the helicopter in the background of Yamamoto's cell phone call. The dispatcher was talking to Yamamoto and the helicopter crew to guide them toward her, Olson said.
Within four minutes of Yamamoto's initial call to the dispatcher, an emergency call was received by the wife of another hiker who had encountered Yamamoto's boyfriend. The woman told the emergency dispatcher about the missing hiker and gave them a general location where Yamamoto and her boyfriend became separated.