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Firefighter recounts daring Morro Rock rescue of lovestruck climber

Watch a dramatic rescue at Morro Rock

A Fresno man who climbed Morro Rock and got stuck on the way down Thursday, April 7, 2016, was rescued by Morro Bay fire Capt. Todd Gailey, who descended by cable from a CHP helicopter to hoist 27-year-old Michael Banks from the narrow ledge. Watc
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A Fresno man who climbed Morro Rock and got stuck on the way down Thursday, April 7, 2016, was rescued by Morro Bay fire Capt. Todd Gailey, who descended by cable from a CHP helicopter to hoist 27-year-old Michael Banks from the narrow ledge. Watc

By now you’ve probably seen the video: A CHP helicopter hovers over Morro Rock while an emergency responder dangles and spins on a rope as he’s lowered down to a stranded, wetsuit-clad man frozen in a tiny crevice on the 600-foot-tall volcanic mound.

The trapped man was Michael John Paul Banks, 27, of Fresno, who reached viral notoriety last week after his plan to scale the Rock to propose to his girlfriend via the FaceTime video app reached a snag when he got stuck coming down the east side of the cliff. (Banks was arrested later that day for suspected possession of methamphetamine and allegedly being under the influence of a controlled substance.)

But according to Capt. Todd Gailey — the Morro Bay Fire Department firefighter-paramedic dangling on that spinning rope — the cliff rescue was unique for a reason other than Banks’ bungled marriage proposal: It was incredibly dangerous.

It’s dangerous for them. It’s dangerous for us. It’s in everyone’s best interest to enjoy it with their own eyes and in photos from the ground.

Capt. Todd Gailey, Morro Bay Fire Department

“I’ve been training on the helicopter for about a decade, and done a handful of rescues from it, but I’d definitely say this is the most challenging, technically, I’ve ever done,” Gailey said Tuesday.

The difficulty started with where Banks got stuck. The eastern side of the Rock is the most difficult for rescuing stranded hikers, Gailey said, because the chimneys and chutes carved into the rock face mean that there is no direct path from the top to anyone stuck on rock. That makes rappelling down to rescue a hiker more difficult, he said.

So right away, Gailey said he knew a helicopter rescue probably was going to be the only option.

Because of the height and shape of the Rock, CHP pilot Joe Kingman had to fly higher and closer to the rock outcroppings than usual to get into the correct position over Banks. That meant Gailey would be further from the helicopter as he dangled below it on the rope, with more room for error, and the helicopter could at any moment get too close to the cliffs.

A wind that hadn’t seemed like much of a problem on the ground became a real danger when it sent Gailey spinning wildly as he was lowered down to Banks.

“The whole time I’m absolutely getting dizzy,” he said with a laugh. “But you don’t really have any opportunity timewise to be sick. It’s not really an option. You’ve just got to do your job.”

Gailey jokingly credited a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm with his two children and a ride on spinning teacups to “training” him for the event.

The wind also continually pushed the helicopter in different directions, a struggle for the pilot and flight officer.

“Hold your left,” flight officer John Ontiveros repeated half a dozen times in the video as Gailey was being lowered.

Kingman could be heard responding: “I’m trying, dude.”

When Gailey finally reached Banks, he had another problem: The ledge the team had planned to place the firefighter on was smaller than anticipated, and Gailey couldn’t get his feet onto it to stand next to Banks. Instead, he was hanging off the ledge by his fingertips, with Banks still frozen in a crevice next to him.

“I’ve been a rock climber for 24 years, and that experience definitely came into play,” Gailey said of what he felt while hanging off the Rock. “So I realized there was a ledge — just a small ledge next to his butt. And so I did a little pullup to get one foot, just to get one foot on it. So then I was able to steady myself between the one foot and the one hand and get to him.”

At this point, Gailey had to put a safety harness around Banks, something he had tried to coach the scared man on from the ground, before the rescue began. But when Gailey got to him, Banks was frozen with fear.

“The helicopter is, of course, not stable, so I know I only have a couple of seconds of working time,” Gailey said. “I’m screaming to him, ‘Give me an arm,’ for this harness, and just in that split couple of seconds, he finally got an arm in and once we get one arm in, it’s pretty easy to get another arm in and shimmy it down.”

Ontiveros can be heard on the video at this point urging Gailey to hurry up: “Come on, dude, hook him up.”

It was the pilot and the flight officer; those guys are the ones who are absolutely just pushing the envelope.

Capt. Todd Gailey, Morro Bay Fire Department

As the pair were swiftly hoisted up and into the helicopter, Banks couldn’t contain his gratitude, Gailey said.

“He was screaming, and he was obviously very stoked on what I was doing,” Gailey said. “He was very excited and thankful.”

For his part, Gailey credited the other members of the rescue team, Kingman and Ontiveros, for its eventual success.

“I did my job, but that was just for a few seconds,” he said. “It was the pilot and the flight officer; those guys are the ones who are absolutely just pushing the envelope. They did an amazing job. My hat goes off to them for sure.”

Training in similar types of rescues is hugely important to ensuring everyone’s safety in these situations, Gailey said. In fact, he was in the process of planning a helicopter rescue drill in Cayucos for Monday and a Morro Rock rescue later this fall, he said.

“It was amazing, amazing teamwork,” he said. “And it comes from being trained with those guys every year.”

When it comes down to it, though, Gailey said the best thing would be if fewer people attempted to climb the Rock.

“It’s like a cat climbing a tree — they climb higher, and then they can’t come back down,” he said. “The best thing to do is to remind them that it is very dangerous. It’s dangerous for them. It’s dangerous for us. It’s in everyone’s best interest to enjoy it with their own eyes and in photos from the ground.”

A man who climbed up Morro Rock and then got stuck while trying to climb down was rescued Thursday, April 7, 2016, by Morro Bay firefighters with the help of a California Highway Patrol helicopter.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

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