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Agencies combine for dramatic rescue on the Mississippi River

An early morning distress call Friday resulted in an hours-long search and the rescue of a disoriented man from the shore of a small slough near LeTourneau.

The man, Ricky Harrison, 59, from Eudora, Ark., was flown by AirCare air ambulance to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Sheriff Martin Pace said. His condition is unknown.

Harrison, who had not been in touch with family members since May, was discovered in an area behind an island, where he had apparently set up camp. Pace said the area where he was found was about a mile north of the LeTourneau landing and was not visible from the main river.

“There’s no signs of foul play,” Pace said. “This was apparently a medical emergency.”

Pace said Harrison called 911 from a disconnected cell phone and the call was picked up by a cell tower in Madison Parish, La. After talking with Harrison, Madison Parish transferred the call to dispatchers at Vicksburg-Warren 911.

“He said he was in a tent, he woke up, he could not see, he did not know where he was,” Pace said. “He could not tell them his name and he did not know how he got there. He said all he could tell was he was in a tent and he appeared to be on a river.”

At some point, the sheriff said, Harrison stopped talking and all the dispatcher could hear was his breathing.

“He wasn’t speaking at all,” Pace said. “911 worked with the phone company to get an approximate location of where the call was coming from.”

Vicksburg-Warren 911 dispatcher Paige Cook, who talked with Harrison, said he sounded like he was in pain, adding, “I stayed on the phone with him for 3.5 hours until I got units to him.

“He kept crying for help,” she said. “He kept going in and out, like he couldn’t really talk to me. He stayed with me the whole 3.5 hours. I would ask him questions over and over again, trying to get some information.

“He kept telling me that he couldn’t see, that he knew he was in a tent, and that’s all I could get from him,” she said.

Cook said Harrison did not know his name, his birthday or any other personal information.

“He didn’t know where he was; he kept asking me how he got there and I kept telling him, ‘I have help coming to you,’” Cook said. “He couldn’t tell me anything, he would just moan and cry.”

She said she was able to use GPS coordinates to direct rescuers.

Pace said Deputy Sam Winchester and county fire coordinator Jerry Briggs searched in the department’s river patrol boat and found him about 9 a.m. in a slough, which was a little channel off the river that ran behind a small island several miles north of the LeTourneau landing.

“He was semi-conscious, extremely emaciated, and appeared to have been there for some time,” Pace said. “He was in a makeshift tent with quite a bit of survival gear and two kayaks, one with supplies and the other he was traveling in.”

Winchester and Briggs found Harrison in the tent, got him to the patrol boat and took him to LeTourneau landing, where he was loaded into the helicopter and taken to UMMC.

At one point, Pace said, the helicopter attempted to land on the island. When it couldn’t, the two medics on the helicopter were lowered and got in the boat.

Pace said there was no food at the campsite and there was no clean drinking water.

“We don’t know how long he’d been without food and water,” he said. “He was in a position where you could not have seen him from the main channel of the river.”

Pace said officials searched Harrison’s property and inventoried the items, which helped them discover Harrison’s identity. Throughout much of the day, Harrison was unidentified. Only when Pace discovered a 2009 rabies tag did he have a starting point to begin looking.

“I was searching through his belongings and found a small keychain, and on it was a 2009 rabies tag for a dog. It had the vets’ name on it from Lake Village, Ark.,” Pace said. “We called them and gave them the control number off the tag.

“Not only were they able to tell me who the person that owned the dog was, they were able to give me a family member contact,” he said. “Once we called, we found a sister who helped with identifying Mr. Harrison.” Since that first call, all of Harrison’s family have been notified.

Harrison, the family told Pace, had set off on a trip down the river from Lake Village in May. He called a family member to pick up his truck from the boat launch and take it back home. The family, the next day, received just one other call from Harrison and nothing since.

“They were relieved to know he was alive,” Pace said. “They had not heard from him at all since then.”

Pace said the cell phone Harrison had with him was no longer under contract, so the only call he could have made was to 911. Pace said Harrison was “well-equipped for survival.” According to Pace, Harrison’s items included a small, .22 rifle, a handgun, fishing nets, cooking equipment and more.

“We’re just happy that this is a rescue and not a recovery,” he said. “So many times when we have operations in the river, it does not have a good outcome, and we’re hoping that this gentleman will be able to recover and that this will be a success.”