The word spread like wildfire last week when Phillip Whaley went missing.
Last seen on Friday, June 28, Whaley, 87, was reported missing on Monday, July 1, and after mostly family efforts Tuesday, law enforcement and search and rescue kicked in big time on Wednesday.
Word quickly spread via social media and other means, reaching the Hooper family, who while gathering for Independence Day on Thursday, talked about and prayed for the man who, by that time, had been missing for five days.
Daniel Hooper had earlier seen the missing person posting generated by the Lovell Police Dept. that included a photo of the distinctive bluish green 2011 Toyota Camry.
When Hooper, 24, and his nephew, Timothy Bates, 16, made the long drive Friday to the Tillett horse range north of the Pryor Mountains within the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana they never expected that they would find the missing man.
Hooper performs horseshoeing work for the Tilletts and their TX Ranch, and on Friday he and his helper, Bates, were to meet Desiree Tillett at the TX’s Lone Wolf cow camp for shoeing. They arrived at the corrals about 10:45 a.m., about 15 minutes earlier. Not seeing Des, who was to round up the horses for shoeing, they recalled seeing sunlight glinting off a vehicle to the south as they neared the corrals, figuring it was a Tillett vehicle, perhaps driven by Des, coming to meet them.
After about 15 minutes, Hooper wondered if perhaps Des had experienced trouble rounding up horses or had gotten stuck. They struck off to see if the glint they had seen came from her truck. When they got to the source of the glare, they were shocked by what they saw.
“We came over the hill and I recognized the car (Whaley’s), because I’d seen the picture on Facebook,” Hooper said. The Camry was stuck nose first in a boggy creek, its front bumper sunk into the mud. On the road, about 15 feet from the car, was Phil Whaley, lying on his back with his hands over his stomach. He was red with sunburn.
“We thought he was dead, especially since he had been missing for so long,” Hooper said. “He was soaked from the Fourth of July storm.
“We ran up to check his pulse and saw his hand move and he was breathing. We touched his shoulder and he woke right up. I think it freaked him out because he wasn’t expecting anybody to find him. He was hurting, but he opened his eyes and was looking at us.”
The boys told him they knew of a house about 2½ miles away and asked him if they could lift him. He said yes but when they tried he was in too much pain. They gave him some sips of water they had in the pickup, but he couldn’t take much.
Knowing that medical help was needed, Hooper set off for a house nearby while Bates continued to work with the dehydrated man to give him some water, lifting his head to help him.
Enroute to the house owned by a woman he knows only as Star, he encountered Desiree, who jumped in the truck. They sped to the house and called her father, Hip Tillett.
“We needed her to call and identify where he was because she knows the area so well,” Hooper said. As Hip started to contact emergency authorities, Des finished rounding up horses while Hooper returned to Whaley. While driving back, Hooper was able to call his mother, Jackie, during patches of cell service, to ask her how to help Mr. Whaley. She told him give him water and keep him warm.
Away for about a half an hour, Hooper returned to find Timothy with Phil’s head on his leg helping him take water.
Soon, Des and sister Sheena arrived, and they covered Whaley with a sleeping bag to keep him warm and sheltered him from the sun.
Not getting very far with his calling due to differing jurisdictions, Hip drove to Lovell and reported the situation at the Lovell Annex, and soon sheriff and search and rescue personnel were on their way north, having already been out searching that day.
Meanwhile, the foursome tending to Whaley were getting worried that help had not arrived so Des drove to a hilltop and called to Billings for medical help. She reached St. Vincent Hospital, and after the hospital checked with the Lovell dispatch center for confirmation, they headed for Lone Wolf with the Flight for Life helicopter. As it approached, Des flashed the helicopter down with her emergency blinkers, Hooper said, staying on the phone with the hospital to help guide the chopper in.
“We were grateful she was out there,” Hooper said. “We didn’t know where to tell them to go.”
He said the helicopter arrived around 2 or 2:30, and after assessing the situation, getting Whaley to the chopper and waiting out a cloud burst, the chopper departed and was gone by 3 p.m., Hooper estimated.
During the 3½ hours or so that they were with him, the quartet gave the gentleman shade and warmth and protected him from the rainstorm.
“It poured for a while,” Hooper said. “The helicopter had to wait probably 20 minutes before they could take off.”
Alert and talking
While waiting, the guardian angels offered Whaley food and he took a couple of bites of salami, but it hurt him to eat it, Hooper and Bates said. It was painful for him to eat and drink, they said, and as the time went on his pain increased, they said, because the care was “waking stuff up.”
Though in pain, Whaley was talkative, the young men said, saying he knew he should have turned around before trying to cross the creek and joking when told that the helicopter had arrived and that he would soon be feeling great, “When you’re my age you never feel great.” He even tried to chuckle, they said.
“He talked to us,” Hooper said. “He was coherent from the time we woke him up. He said that on the fourth he had given up hope that anyone would find him. For being 87 and gone that long he was really coherent.”
Whaley knew how many days he had been stuck, and if they had had more time, he could have told them about each day of his ordeal, Bates said.
“He said he just liked to drive on roads he had never been on before,” Hooper added. “How he got a Camry in there is just incredible. He was in pretty good spirits the whole time. He started hurting more toward the end and grew quiet. He talked about his wife in the care center.”
At one point, Whaley said, he had tried to walk out and walked for about four hours but felt his legs would give out so he returned to the car.
“They did give out just before he got to the car,” Hooper said, noting that Whaley had also tried to free his car from the bog.
Finding Phil Whaley was amazing, Hooper and Bates said, and it was modern technology that helped them.
“I give credit to Facebook,” Hooper said. “I wouldn’t have known about the car and the guy without it.”
by David Peck