OCTOBER MOUNTAIN STATE FOREST — On a blue moon-lit Halloween evening, Stephanie Starship packed a survival bag — just in case — and ventured into the heart of October Mountain State Forest on Saturday. The 33-year-old nurse from Pittsfield was venturing in search of rare plants, a hobby of hers. The hike was only scheduled to last a couple of hours and when she didn’t return by 8:30 p.m. for a planned night of pizza and scary movies, a friend called police.
Starship was lost in the 16,600-acre state park, the commonwealth’s largest, and a search couldn’t begin until the next day.
A 9-year-old girl battling a life-threatening heart condition answered the call to rescue her.
Around noontime Sunday, about 12 hours after Starship was reported overdue to come home, Alexandra “Alex” Holt, of Southbridge, found the slightly injured hiker thanks to help from the Berkshire Mountain Search and Rescue team (BMSAR).
The highly trained group of men and women organized the mock rescue at the intersection of Whitney Place and West Branch roads, locally known as “Four Corners.” The event was at Alex’s request through the Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation — sort of. Alex had asked for a woods experience, which began with a camping trip in Hinsdale last month. Her wish also included a scavenger hunt, but BMSAR went a step further, without the young girl knowing, and surprised her with a mock search and rescue.
BMSAR President Michael Comeau felt Alex would get more out of of leading “what really is a training exercise.”
“The problem when most people go into the woods, they aren’t prepared,” Comeau told The Eagle. “If they go dressed in shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops at 7:30 at night, that’s asking for trouble.”
Starship was dressed properly and brought a blanket, snacks and other essentials if she got lost, hurt or stranded.
Surprised to learn she was the team leader for the pretend rescue, Holt immediately took the exercise seriously.
“I was concerned about the person and wanted to find her fast, but not too fast. I had to look for clues,” she said in an Eagle interview afterwards.
The first clue can usually be found before the search begins, according to BMSAR vice president and its K-9 handler, Michael Williamson.
“We need a place where the person was last seen, that’s usually a good place to start,” he said.
Turns out, “Four Corners” was a good place to initiate the search. Donning a warm hat, winter gloves, fur-lined boots and a pink down jacket covered by a Make-A-Wish T-shirt, Alex, assisted by BMSAR’s Caroline Sullivan, marched a team of about 10 BMSAR members in a line search trough an open field, looking for clues.
With parents Danielle and Jason Holt and 14-year-old brother Aidan close at hand, Alex found a backpack likely belonging to Starship, who was described as being five-foot-five, almost 200 pounds with dirty blond hair. Alex held a flyer with Starship’s picture as she discovered other clues, such as a spade hand shovel stuck in the ground and a sweater hanging from a low tree branch.
“It’s fuzzy and hooded and it looks like a woman’s size,” the astute girl radioed back to the search and rescue command post.
The search continued with Alex finding a snack bag and yellow Croc at the edge of the woods. She and the team tightened the line and took several more steps into the woods, where they found Starship (portrayed by BMSAR’s Stephanie Buzzella) laying on a blanket and bundled up in her winter clothing, had her legs trapped under a large limb.
Alex and several rescuers removed the limb. Starship slowly stood up and walked out of the woods on her own, Alex leading the way to a round of applause.
When everyone made it safely out of the woods, it was apparent BMSAR may have a potential recruit in Alexandra Holt.
“I would love to do this again,” she said.