John Stossel: Why Should We Rescue the Reckless?

Your tax dollars fund heroic rescues, no matter how foolish the situation.

May 07, 2009, 4:40 PM

May 8, 2009— -- Almost every day, somewhere in America, rescuers take heroic risks to help someone.

They arrive in helicopters to pull hikers off Grand Canyon ledges and lift surfers out of the Pacific Ocean. They rescue mountaineers stranded on snowcapped mountains, and help rafters out of rivers. They also rescue people who are trying to kill themselves.

Sometimes rescuers put their own lives on the line. In 2002, when climbers on Oregon's Mt. Hood fell into a crevasse, a military helicopter flew to the rescue. That chopper crashed, and the pilot was seriously hurt. It became a rescue of a rescuer.

But all too often, the rescued are adventurers who are in trouble because they took foolish risks. Examples are easy to find on the Internet. YouTube is crammed with videos of risky behavior, like people jumping into Arizona's Lake Powell from its 100-foot cliffs.

But even mundane sports like fishing can be treacherous if people are careless. Every winter people walk or drive onto the ice of Lake Erie to fish. One day in February fishermen drove over a crack in the ice that threatened to open up in the windy weather.

One of the fishermen, Joe Garverick, explained that the crack was the reason he used an airboat: "So you can go home at night and see your kids." But most of the fishermen didn't use airboats -- many went out on four wheelers or on foot, and some knew the risk.

One fisherman said, "This morning the ice looked bad. Going out, a lot of people said we shouldn't go out. Wind, everything looked bad, we decided to go out anyhow."

Jenny Olson was on the ice with the TV crew for the show "Michigan Out-of-Doors." She was concerned about the people who had driven onto the ice, saying, "in a wind like this, that's not the smart thing to do. That crack's going to get bigger and bigger as the day goes on." And it did.

Just a few hours later the crack was 20 feet of open water. The fishermen without airboats were going to have trouble getting back to shore. Someone called 911 and said, "There's about a 50-foot gap between the crack and the shoreline. There's probably 500 guys out there still."

Seeking Adventure, Ignoring the Risks

Twenty-one government agencies responded to the rescue request. Sheriff Bob Bratton of Ottawa County was angry so many people ignored the risk.

"I'm a little upset about what I see going on," he said. "There's no section in the law about stupidity because they could all be arrested today for that."

But fisherman Randy Hayes defended taking his four-wheeler onto the ice. "You take a chance every time you go out there," he said. "There's wind, there's cracks. It's just something you deal with."

The rescue cost more than a quarter million dollars. The sheriff suggested that the fishermen help pay for some of the cost, and many objected.

Though Garverick didn't need rescue that day, he also didn't believe the others shouldn't be charged.

"I'm not for paying. I'm not for paying if you get rescued in the woods," he said. "This is America, and I believe we all jump up, we help each other."

Rick Ferguson, who owns a local bait shop nearby, advised fisherman to stay off the ice that day. Even so, he doesn't think the fishermen should have to pay.

"We already pay that in the tax dollars that we pay," he said.

Randy Hayes offered the same argument that others often make: "if you start charging people, people won't call when they truly do need help."

But New Hampshire does charge for rescues -- when the state finds negligence. And it doesn't seem to have stopped those in trouble from calling for help.

"Since 1999 we've been billing people and they keep calling," said Lt. Todd Bogardus, who coordinates rescues for the state's Fish and Game department.

But that doesn't mean it's easy to collect.

John Rushenberg is a risk taker who likes all sorts of outdoor adventures. In Moab, Utah, he hiked up a canyon and got stuck on a ledge last year. The local sheriff, Jim Nyland of Grand County, said Rushenberg was reckless.

"I mean he had sandals on, you know, and I believe they were thongs," Nyland said.

Rushenberg freely admitted, "I was hiking in flip flops." But he also said, "I don't want to pay my bill."

Rushenberg said the rescue was unnecessary because before the county rescuers arrived, there were already people ready to help him down.

Rushenberg tried to argue that point with the sheriff, but Nyland didn't back down.

"I'm looking at the local tax payer. And you know when people go out and do ridiculous things, I mean I think they ought be held accountable," he said.

Rushenberg still owes the county more than $2,000 and suggests TV viewers might want to help pay his bill.

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