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Portland PJs recover missing hiker

STEVENSON, Wash. -- Living by the words of their motto, these things we do that others may live, Air Force Reserve Pararescuemen, known as PJs, from Portland’s 304th Rescue Squadron assisted in recovering a hiker who was declared missing October 25.

When 31-year-old Melvin Burtch didn’t return home that evening, Skamania County Sherriff initiated search efforts calling on the 304th RQS and area civil search and rescue teams.

Early October 26, a team of four PJs scoured steep rocky terrain near the Oregon-Washington border until nightfall with the assistance of civil search and rescue teams. Information was obtained to pinpoint the GPS coordinates for Burtch’s cell phone allowing searchers to navigate to the cell phone location where they found Burtch’s body within 50 yards of the location of the phone.

It is believed that Burtch perished from injuries he sustained from a possible 700-foot fall.

Darkness setting in disallowed a recovery until morning. Staff Sgt. John Mellencamp, 304th team leader, said his team traversed a small ridgeline using trees and terrain to block potential rockfall. They also stayed close together to further mitigate hazards.

“Our goal was to get in and get out as fast as we could to keep rescuers safe,” said Mellencamp.

The 304th learned Burtch was an Army veteran who served two combat tours so they took out an American flag draping it over him. His body was then lowered via a litter 600 feet out of the rock hazard area. From there, they transported him on ATVs through the trail system.

“We wanted to return Melvin with dignity,” said Mellencamp. “It was awesome for us to be able to work with the community to give closure to Melvin’s family in a respectful way. We hope his family gets solace out of that,” said Mellencamp. 

While the terrain presented dangers to everyone's personal safety, “The PJs that went into the screefield were extremely efficient and motivated and were able to safely extricate Melvin because they are so well trained,” said Mellencamp.

“We wanted to keep everyone safe because the SAR community here means a lot to us, the people we are going to get, mean a lot to us, and being a part of the SAR community here means a lot to us,” said Mellencamp.

“By doing civil SARs not only do we help the community, but we become better rescue special specialist when we are called overseas to do combat search and rescue,” he said. “We are proud to be a part of this community and the 304th team.”