MIRACLE ON THE MOUNTAIN - Sixteen years ago, an Air Force officer and his 10-year-old son vanished in a blizzard on the mountains of Turkey. Discover how they survived nine days of freezing temperatures in the rugged wilderness with no food or fire

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Ten-year-old Matthew Couillard's eyes couldn't seem to focus on the scene below, but his every instinct told him something was wrong, terribly wrong.

His heart pounded in his chest.

The scene slowly came into focus. Trees, snow, a stream. Then at the stream's edge ...

A body!

Half in the water and half on the shore, a man's decomposing remains lay with ripped flesh exposing bone. Paralyzed by fear, Matthew cautiously peered at the man's face. With sudden, horrifying recognition, Matthew opened his mouth to scream. But terror clutched his throat, stifling the cry.

The man was his father!

Matthew woke up with a start, his heart racing, his breath coming in short gasps, like he'd just finished running the 100-yard dash.

"A dream. It was only a bad dream," he told himself, his mind still reeling.

He tried to calm himself, though he couldn't seem to stop shivering. Then he realized fear no longer shook him. ... He was cold.

Disoriented, he searched his surroundings. As he gained his wits, a new fear infiltrated his being. But this time the nightmare was real -- one he couldn't end by waking up.

Matthew Couillard was lost in the wilderness.

And he was alone.

Nine days after they vanished on the mountains of Turkey Jan. 15, 1995, and one day after a "service of hope" lauded their virtues in the past tense, Lt. Col. Michael R. Couillard and his son, Matthew, turned up alive. They had survived in an icy cave for more than a week on melted snow, five pieces of candy and guts. But before they were found, dad had to make a gut-wrenching decision that no parent should ever be forced to face -- to leave his son alone in a vast, snow-covered wilderness.

On a skiing trip with a group from the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, father and son decided to go up the slopes to make a last run of the day. At the mountain summit, a blinding blizzard hit, and the pair lost their way. For nine days they remained lost in the unforgiving, frozen forest -- no food, no matches, given up for dead. But the colonel, a C-130 Hercules pilot by trade, had been through Air Force survival training. That, and perhaps a miracle, brought them out of the mountains of northern Turkey Jan. 24, 1995.

Sixteen years later, memories of the ordeal still linger all too vividly.

Mike, who was stationed in Ankara as the operations chief for the Office of Defense Cooperation, decided to take his sons, Matt and 13-year-old Mark, on a ski trip in the mountains near Bolu, Turkey. After making several runs in the morning, they stopped at the lodge for a typical Turkish lunch -- cheese and vegetable sandwiches with tea.

For Mike and Matt, it would be the last meal they'd eat for nine days.

After lunch Mark hung out with some of his Boy Scout buddies, while Mike and Matt decided to tackle the toughest slope on the mountain.

"Up to that point, the weather had been nearly perfect," Mike said. "So I was very surprised to see how much it worsened at the summit. Visibility was about 20 feet, and we began what we thought was the difficult run."

Little did they know just how "difficult" the route would become in these whiteout conditions.

Within 15 minutes, Mike knew he had taken the wrong trail. Nevertheless, he figured they could backtrack a little and get right back on course. They sidestepped up one hill, then another and finally a third.

No familiar landmarks.

"We were lost all right, but I hadn't admitted it to myself," Mike said. "I had it in my mind that if we could just get down the mountain, we could still make the bus."

Instead, they unknowingly skied further and further away from the safety of the resort.

"I was cold, and I was tired," said Matt, who by this time was complaining, even crying, for his dad to stop. "I fell down a bunch, so my clothes got soaked. Sometimes, I even fell down on purpose, just so I could rest a little."

Mike knew his son couldn't take much more.

"I finally admitted to myself we were lost, and I was scared," the then-38-year-old father said. "I wouldn't have been so concerned if I was by myself. But I knew Matt was wearing down, and I was desperate to find shelter. I even tried carrying him, but the snow was too deep. I drove him hard -- something I apologized for later."

After traveling nearly five hours, their progress had slowed to a crawl. Matt's 4-foot-6-inch frame could no longer struggle through the 5 to 6 feet of snow. Neither soccer nor street hockey had prepared his body for this. So at about 8 p.m., Mike spotted a big pine tree that seemed to offer adequate shelter to bed down for the night. He ripped branches from nearby trees to use as insulation and to form a crude hut.

He got Matt out of his wet clothes, gave him his jeans to wear, and then they huddled together, chest to chest, in Mike's ski suit and jacket.

"My hands were freezing, so I had to tuck them under my dad's armpits," Matt said, scrunching his nose, sticking out his tongue and shaking his head in disgust. "We just kind of hugged each other and went to sleep."

That first night tormented Mike.

"I had screwed up," he said with a deep sigh. "And look at the mess I had gotten us into. I broke the first rule of survival training: When lost, stay put. We had moved, and we had moved far."

That night, only half awake, his eyes kept wandering toward a dark area at the base of an adjacent rock. Like a giant owl's eye, the mysterious spot stared back at him.

The next morning, through the swirling snow, Mike investigated the area and discovered something essential: better shelter. It was a tiny cave, not more than 2 feet high and 6 feet deep. He laid tree boughs on the floor of the cave; then he and his son huddled inside.

Another necessity? Water.

"Dehydration is a problem in these situations," said Mike, who found his mind drifting back to the ever more enticing climate of Los Angeles, where he grew up. "You can eat snow, but that lowers your body temperature, and you still don't get enough liquid."

Another stroke of luck. Not 25 yards away, a mountain stream. Mike used Matt's ski boots to haul the water back to the cave and broke both ends of a ski pole to use as a sipping tube.

The relentless snowstorm persisted.

The duo "feasted" on the five pieces of candy they had jammed into their pockets.

They took turns using each other's bellies to warm their feet and toes -- not an easy task in the cramped quarters of the cave.

Throughout the night when they'd wake up at the same time, Mike would try to comfort Matt by talking about positive things ... his warm bed at home ... places they'd vacationed ... mom's homemade chocolate chip cookies. ...

While Mike and Matt battled for their lives, events quickly unfolded at the ski resort and in Ankara.

Mark, the elder son, had started to worry about his dad and brother as the time for the bus to leave crept closer.

"I hadn't seen them since after lunch -- no one else had either," Mark said. "Me and a friend checked the equipment area to see if they had turned in Matt's rental gear. They hadn't."

The bus left at 7:30 p.m. Mark stayed behind.

Mary Couillard, at home with their 8-year-old daughter, Marissa, didn't panic when she found out her husband and son were missing.

"My heart skipped a beat," she said. "But I just knew they'd show up -- come walking out of the woods or something."

The resort's ski patrol made an exhausting search the first night, but the blizzard had already wiped out any tracks. Mike and Matt had seemingly vanished without a trace.

Over the next two days, some 500 Air Force volunteers, Army special forces and Turkish commandos joined the search.

Mike and Matt had been missing for three days when the snowstorm finally subsided.

"The sun was a welcome sight," Mike said. "But our situation still wasn't good."

Matt's soaked clothes had frozen, rendering them useless.

"(My feet) were so swollen and blistered, I thought they were going to burst," Matt said with a painful expression.

Mike's feet were in similar condition. Nevertheless, he decided to climb a nearby bridge to get a better view.

Each time he ventured out of the cave, he endured 30 minutes of torture. His boots, now brittle from nights that dipped as low as 14 degrees, shot excruciating pain through his mangled and swollen feet.

That first jaunt up over the ridge provided nothing but a glimpse of some cabins too distant to travel with Matt in tow. Mike, who had already planted skis on both sides of the road adjacent to the cave, decided not to repeat his first survival mistake.

This time they would stay put.

On the fourth day, hope appeared on the horizon: Turkish and American search and rescue helicopters.

"We could hear the helicopters before we could see them," Mike said.

In their excitement, they scrambled out of the cave in their bare feet. But the helicopters disappeared over a ridge.

Matt hung his head. "I was really getting worried now," he said. "I mean, we were out there waving our hands and jumping up and down, yelling ... and they just didn't see us."

So their days continued. Two bodies fused together trying to keep warm in the cave most of the time, only leaving to get water from the stream or when they heard the beckoning call of a helicopter's rotors. The choppers flew nearby twice more on the fifth day and once on the sixth, each time just far enough away that the would-be rescuers couldn't see the stranded skiers. Nobody expected the duo to have traveled so far in a blizzard -- nearly 10 miles from the resort.

Slowly, Matt's conversation had turned from what foods they would eat when they were found, to what heaven would be like. And if they didn't die, the fourth-grader already had plans for artificial limbs.

"My feet and legs were so numb, I could hardly feel them," he said.

Devout Catholics, dad and son prayed often, asking to be found. But on the sixth day, when all hope seemed lost, Mike found himself asking God that if they must die, "Please take Matt first."

"I didn't relish the thought of dying alone," Mike said, swallowing hard, "but I didn't want Matt to have to watch me die and suffer alone."

On the morning of the seventh day, Mike could no longer stay put. He struggled with his boots one more time, and set out up the mountain to wait at the top for a passing helicopter. This time, at a different vantage point, he noticed some more cabins -- much closer than the ones he had seen before.

He waited two hours for the helicopters. But his eyes continued to wander back in the direction of the taunting cabins, until he finally came to a desperate conclusion.

"I knew if I didn't do something drastically different, they'd find our bodies in the spring when the snow melted," Mike said. "That's when I decided."

He paused for a few seconds, his eyes red-rimmed and welling up.

"I decided to try to make it to those cabins and get help," he said. "I knew if I didn't try now, I wouldn't have the strength later. But there was no way Matt could travel."

Leaving Matt alone was something Mike had sworn he would not do, but he couldn't just sit there and watch him slowly die. He went back down the hill to Matt. Surprisingly, his son took the news well.

"I didn't care at that point," Matt said. "I just wanted to be found."

Mike left his jeans and jacket with Matt and carefully went over what Matt needed to do to survive: Keep bundled up, drink plenty of water, and most of all, don't leave the cave. Then dad, wearing only his black ski bibs and a red turtleneck, strapped on his skis and left his son.

A foreboding feeling knotted his stomach.

Mike's trip proved exhausting. He would ski a little, lose his breath and energy, then plod on. An hour and a half later, near collapse, he reached the cabins.

They were abandoned ... not a soul in sight."I had reached the low of lows now," he said. "I had fully expected to find somebody there."

After breaking into several cabins, he got excited when he discovered a single match. He soaked some wood with kerosene he'd found and struck the match.

It fizzled out along with his hopes.

"I had done everything in my power to save us, but it wasn't enough," said Mike, who had finally collapsed. "I could just manage to rise to my hands and knees."

Panic hit him hard for the first time. Handcuffed by exhaustion and weak from hunger, he could barely crawl out the door, much less make the treacherous trek back up the slope where Matt anxiously awaited him.

"I had let him down. I left him alone and was now too weak to go back and get him." Mike said, his voice cracking. "I was at the mercy of someone finding us. I begged God to take care of Matt. It was in God's hands now."

Back in Ankara, Mark had reunited with his mother and sister. Mary, who struggled to be strong for the kids during the day, would often break down and cry at night. She held on to one thought that helped to keep her sanity: The last time Mike and Matt had been seen, they had been together.

Army Col. Edward J. Fitzgerald, the on-scene commander for the search and rescue effort, called Mary twice a day to keep her updated. The first thing he'd say is, "We didn't find them." Then he'd provide details on the day's search.

At night, mom had to answer those tough questions an 8-year-old won't hesitate to ask.

"Marissa wanted to know why this was happening to us," Mary said, her voice trembling as she wiped tears from her eyes. "I told her I didn't know why, but that God has a plan, and we just have to trust Him."

Wiping more tears, Mary suddenly burst into laughter.

"Marissa was kind of frustrated by my answer," she said still chuckling and crying. "She said, 'I knew you were gonna say it's some kinda God thing.' "

Tasked with finding more "concrete" answers, Fitzgerald and the rescue workers labored day and night.

"We searched every meter of a 40-square-kilometer area," he said. "Each day the likelihood of them being alive diminished. Six feet of snow fell the first three days. By the sixth day, most believed there was a greater likelihood their bodies were buried under 3 or 4 feet of packed snow."

Ironically, on the seventh day -- the same day Mike reached the cottages -- the search ended for the most part.The Turkish commandos went back to their base, and only a small contingent of U.S. special forces search and rescue workers remained to continue the diligent hunt.

Most speculated the two were dead. In Ankara, a service of hope was held.

On the morning of the ninth day -- two days after he had left Matt at the cave -- Mike Couillard slowly, agonizingly crawled out onto the porch of one of the cottages to scoop a handful of snow. Suddenly his eyes caught a glimpse of movement. For a minute, he stared in disbelief. ...

A truck full of Turkish lumberjacks!

"I started yelling like crazy, using my limited Turkish to tell them 'Please, help!' " Mike said.

One of the woodcutters, Ismail Keklikci, a rugged 65-year-old man, plowed through waist-deep snow to reach the colonel. Mike found himself looking into a brown, leathery, smiling face. Keklikci, a seemingly frail 5-foot-5, had amazingly big hands, still sticky with tree sap. In one he held an ax, with the other he reached out for the colonel, and said, "Yarbay?"

"They knew who I was," Mike said with a wide grin. "Yarbay is Turkish for lieutenant colonel. They told me they'd seen my picture on TV. They were very excited -- almost as excited as me."

The woodcutters wrapped Mike in a blanket while he explained to them where Matt was. Half the group took Mike to a forestry service station, while the other half set out to find Matt.

Mike waited in desperation, tormented for news on his son.

Matt, meanwhile, had been drifting in and out of consciousness. Waking up that morning from the nightmare about the death of his father, he tried to leave the cave.

"My dad had told me not to leave, but I thought something bad had happened to him," Matt said. "I tried to leave, but I couldn't walk. So I just stayed in the cave and waited. I was just starting to fall back asleep when I heard some birds making a lot of noise."

But as his drowsiness left him, Matt realized the sounds weren't coming from birds at all. They were voices -- men's voices!

Matt hollered, "Hey!" The lumberjacks rushed over to him, yelling, "Whoohooo!" They carried him back to a waiting truck and took him to be reunited with his father.

Keklikci described the scene.

"Yarbay wasn't sure he would see his son again alive," the lumberjack said through an interpreter. "When he saw him in good condition, he just grabbed him, hugging and kissing him. I was so happy I cried more than they did. I was hugging the father and son as tightly as they hugged each other."

The terrible dread about Matt's fate relieved, Mike couldn't stop the tears.

"No words can explain the emotion," Mike said, his voice quivering and his eyes welling up. "I couldn't wait to get my hands on him."

Mike, 15 pounds lighter, and Matt, about 10 pounds thinner, were flown to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, for treatment for hypothermia, dehydration and frostbite. Also, that's where they would be reunited with Mary, Mark and Marissa.

"There were a lot of tears shed at the hospital that day," Mary said. "It was a miracle they were alive."

Capt. Barbara A. Rugo can vouch for that. She is the pediatrician at Incirlik who first treated Matt in the emergency room and then followed his case.

"His (Matt's) condition was amazing," Rugo said. "I thought he would be totally out of it, but he was sitting up, joking around. The first thing he asked for was a Coke and fries. So
I knew he was going to be OK."

Mike and Matt could only consume milkshakes and other liquids at first. Rugo said stomach and intestinal problems can develop if food is reintroduced too fast.

"Matt had been in good spirits -- very brave," said Rugo, who still keeps a picture of Matt from his stay at the hospital. "But when he saw his mom, he became a little boy again. He started crying, and said, 'Mommy I was so cold, so scared.' It was very, very emotional."

In and out of the hospital at Incirlik and then at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio until mid-April 1995, the Couillards were then stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. -- ironic in it-self since Colorado is where Mike and Mary took their first ski trip together as a couple.

Mike and Matt still have some physical signs to remind them of their ordeal. Matt lost half of one toe and the tip of another -- both on his right foot; although, it didn't affect his mobility. Only a few months after the ordeal, he was already running around picking on his little sister and would try to karate kick and otherwise annoy his older brother every chance he got. Mike's healing went a little slower. He was still hobbling around a few months later, but was back on flying status by early June 1995.

Now a drummer in a heavy metal band, Matt will turn 26 May 12. Mike has since retired from the Air Force, and he and Mary will celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary June 2.

And none of it would have been possible without the miracle on the mountain.