Retired park service diver recalls search and rescue exploits

Pat Horning gives a presentation in Page on May 20.

Pat Horning – a retired National Park Service diver, roads and waterways supervisor, project manager and decades-long Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA) employee – gave a presentation titled “The World’s Greatest Ride” at the Courtyard Marriott in Page on May 20. The presentation, hosted by the Canyon Club of Page, covered his life in the NPS and his experiences living in Arizona, Washington State and Utah.

Patrick Horning, or “Pat” to his friends, moved to Arizona when he was a child. His father got a job at the Babbitt’s store, allowing Horning the rare life experience of growing up at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Horning’s high school class was the first to graduate on the porch of the El Tovar Hotel. At age 17, he started his federal career working on the Grand Canyon trail crew and worked on the North Kaibab Trail. When he got a maintenance job at Desert View, he realized that it was a way to learn how to maintain and repair park infrastructure.  

During his career, Horning got involved in search and rescue and recalls an incident where a woman had fallen off the edge of the Grand Canyon and broken a femur. The helicopter came, and the pilot said that the patient was on the wrong side of the helicopter crane. The patient ended up being lifted in such a way that the rescue litter spun on its way up to the helicopter. He said those kinds of rescues were called “screamers.”

Horning later spent two winters at the North Rim, a rather solitary assignment in the off-season. But he loved the North Rim and the solitude. It seemed that the water line going from the North Rim to the South Rim would break every day, resulting in dull moments not lasting all that long.  

One of Horning’s more infamous stories involved him and a group of employees using mules to play polo on the park’s baseball field. They had a grand time and were planning to make it a more regular unofficial employee event until a visitor asked at the Visitor Center when the mule polo game started the next day. Having now come to the rangers’ attention, there were no more mule polo games held at Grand Canyon.

Horning met his wife Lisa, and they married in the grassy meadow at Lees Ferry. More recently, their daughter Megan married in the same meadow.

The Hornings soon found themselves at Olympic National Park in Washington State, providing him a “career reset,” as he recalls. He learned to work in the rain, which was new to him, having grown up at the Grand Canyon. The Hornings enjoyed their time on the Olympic Peninsula, but the deserts called him back to Arizona and Lees Ferry.

In the late 1980s, the Hornings moved to Halls Crossing and started to go scuba diving. Over time, Horning was responsible for the Glen Canyon NRA dive team, a well-respected group that was the “go-to” dive team not only in Arizona but also in the entire country. In addition to scuba divers, the team had a remote underwater robot that was used to locate and help recover boating and drowning victims. 

Over his career at Glen Canyon NRA, Horning became the Aids to Navigation supervisor and continued to lead the dive team. Later, his responsibility expanded to include roads.

He ended his career as a project manager responsible for writing scopes of work and administering contacts. One of the last projects he worked on was the replacement of the Glen Canyon NRA entrance signs. Horning also prepared a plan to convert the remote generating stations of Bullfrog, Dangling Rope, Hite and Halls Crossing to 80% solar power. With the start of the new administration in 2016, the plan was shelved.

In 1995, Horning and the dive team, along with then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his crew, were involved in the rescue of nine visitors who were caught in a flash flood in Antelope Canyon. The storm created a flood of water into the canyon that reportedly reached a peak flow of 30,000 cubic feet per second. (To put that into perspective, that’s about 30,000 basketballs going by each second.)

The buoy boat from Glen Canyon NRA was the first to respond to the incident. The silt, having been freshly deposited, was soft and almost impossible to walk on. The rescuers placed plywood on top to create a sort of trail from which the recovery team looked for the victims. 

The challenge was how to figure out the identity of the victims as they were recovered. Horning recalls that there was a company that claimed its equipment could find bodies under the sediment, but it didn’t work. While the search and rescue crews were recovering the bodies and trying to determine identities, one of the bodies rose to the surface of the sand and silt deposited by the flood. There was a fanny pack with the passports of the visitors who were on the tour on that body’s waist.

Horning had a professional relationship with former Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio. He was on site for the Antelope Canyon recovery. Until Horning proved himself as a capable rescuer, Arpaio referred to Horning as that “hippy kid with a Mickey Mouse machine.” The “Mickey Mouse machine” was the submersible robot that the dive team used to locate and recover objects underwater. Eventually, Arpaio and Horning formed a professional friendship and worked together on other search and rescue operations.

One of Horning’s more memorable dives occurred when he dove to the site of the World War II-era B29 bomber that had crashed into the waters of Lake Mead. At that time, the plane was in some 225 feet of water. The entire plane was 115 feet from nose to tail.

The accident had occurred during a training run, when the plane was launching missiles in an exercise in Green River, Utah. The pilot decided to take the military passengers by Lake Mead, showing off a bit by flying close to the lake surface. When the tip of the wing touched the lake’s surface, the bomber crashed into the lake, becoming a bit of an underwater destination. Horning remarked that he wouldn’t be surprised if the plane is visible now. Nowadays, a visitor can take a guided tour of the plane.

Living in Big Water, Utah, Horning got involved with the Big Water Fire Department and over time upgraded the building, increased the number of fire engines and provided ambulance service for Kane County.

As fire chief, he noticed that during the peak of the COVID pandemic, Kane County was shown on maps as being free of any positive COVID tests despite eight patients going to the hospital with symptoms. 

When the new glamping resort Under Canvas wanted to test their employees and guests, Horning found a way to get plenty of test kits and tested the employees. With test kits left over, he offered free COVID testing to anyone who would stop by the Big Water Fire Department and ask for one.

According to Horning, as Kane County COVID numbers increased with the results of the testing, the Big Water mayor, under pressure from Kane County commissioners, urged Horning to retire. Now, he’s running for Kane County commissioner.

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