University News

Drea Briggs Saves Friend from Quicksand, Earns Award for Valor

Published: February 27, 2019 | Author: Andrew Brown | Category: Academics

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This is the spot Sarah was trapped. Notice the arc of rocks Drea built to place food, water, and a fire on to keep Sarah safe.

On a beautiful summer day in Southern Utah, a weekend hike turned into a life or death struggle for survival when hiker and National Park Service employee Sarah Merritt became trapped in quicksand.

Sarah was hiking with Southern Utah University student and Pipe Spring National Monument intern Drea Briggs in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. They planned on taking four days and three nights to backpack through part of the world’s longest slot canyon, from Buckskin Gulch to Lee’s Ferry, but after two full days of hiking, Sarah became hopelessly stuck in a riverbed full of quicksand.

After futile attempts to dig her out, Drea used her wilderness first aid training to maximize Sarah's comfort and minimize the potential effects of hypothermia prior to leaving her and hiking out 15 miles in the dark, chest deep in water, through unfamiliar terrain to obtain additional aid and rescue.
“A mile in the canyon is nothing like the sidewalk or even a trail. Much of it is questionable footing; some of it is swimming with your heavy backpack on. And Drea did it all in the dark. I owe her big time,” said Sarah of the all-night rescue hike Drea took to save her friend’s life.

Nearly 19 hours after Sarah first became stuck, Drea finally could contact Search and Rescue and have a helicopter dispatched to get Sarah out of the canyon, and out of danger. During the night, Drea also came across other hikers who she was able to rouse from sleep and send to the river to help her friend stay safe and dig through the sand. Those hikers ended up freeing Sarah from the quicksand after hours of backbreaking work and some survival engineering tactics. But once the two men left their campground to search for Sarah, Drea continued to hike out of the canyon alone looking for cell service, never knowing if Sarah was safe until the helicopter landed almost 19 hours later.

map of location Sarah became stuck in quicksandFortunately, that helicopter took an exhausted Sarah out of the canyon before an incoming storm rolled through which would have exposed her to more danger.

For demonstrating the strength of mind and spirit that enabled her to encounter danger with firmness and personal bravery resulting in the saving of a life, Drea was presented an Award for Valor by Pipe Spring Superintendent Fred Armstrong and Southern Utah University President Scott L Wyatt on November 8, 2018.

“Seeing those words on that plaque, ‘strength of mind and spirit,’ helped me get through the rest of the semester because, in many ways, the ordeal wasn’t over for me,” said Drea. “I had this other challenge. I had 15 weeks of school to get through, not just 15 miles of canyon, so that was really helpful, and meant a lot.”

That September night, Drea hiked through miles of unfamiliar terrain in the dark, through chest deep water and a winding maze of canyons to save her friend, with no idea if she was alright stuck sitting in the middle of a river caught in quicksand. It was a terrifying and traumatic experience, but since then she has felt a tremendous sense of support from her friends and community.

“To have President Wyatt say, ‘is there anything that I can do for you?’ And to know that I can go to him, to feel that connection and support, and know he means it and that he is genuine, has been a really big support,” said Drea.

Drea is a construction management major at SUU and will graduate this coming May.

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Tags: Outdoors College of Science and Engineering President

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