CATALOOCHEE DIVIDE — After spending four nights lost in the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Kevin Mark Lynch was found by searchers.
At about 4:25 p.m., searchers discovered Lynch, alert and responsive, in the southeast area of the park near the Cataloochee Divide Trail.
Earlier this afternoon, grid search team members discovered the first significant leads in the search for Lynch when his hat and pair of sunglasses were discovered about 1,600 feet southeast of the Cataloochee Divide trail.
Shortly after, a second grid search team found what appeared to be fresh footprints leading toward a place called Ferguson Cabin.
At these discoveries, search efforts were consolidated and redirected to the areas adjacent to where the clues were discovered in a focused search effort. Within a few hours, Lynch was discovered after he responded to searcher’s yells. Lynch was only three-fourths of a mile from the point last seen.
Lynch was transported by Haywood County EMS to Haywood Regional Medical Center for assessment where he will be reunited with his family, whom has gathered near the command center daily since his disappearance.
“From the moment we learned of Lynch’s disappearance, Haywood County Emergency Management and National Park Service staff worked quickly to take an aggressive and proactive approach with search tactics due to the dire circumstances surrounding Lynch’s health condition,” said Park Chief Ranger Lisa Hendy. "The successful utilization of a joint command structure was definitely a contributing factor to the success of this operation. We cannot thank all of the agencies who supported this effort enough for their dedicated commitment to bringing Mr. Lynch home safely to his family.”
Wednesday morning, the park service allowed members of the media to attend the morning briefing and speak with some of the officials heading up the search.
Lynch had been missing since Saturday afternoon when he was last seen near the Cataloochee Divide Trail at The Swag. More than 200 searchers have been involved in trying to find the New Jersey man, who has dementia.
While there are those who have been working tirelessly from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. since the beginning of the search, the men and women on hand Wednesday were eager to get back into the woods and do everything they could to bring Lynch out safely.
The morning began with the briefing, which allowed those in charge of various aspects of the search — from operations to safety to logistics — to give updates and address issues that arose over the prior days’ searches. Wednesday's briefing stressed the need to minimize impact on The Swag's grounds and the surrounding wilderness.
Near the end of the brief, Lynch’s wife, Alena, spoke to the searchers. While expressing her gratitude, she also gave them a heartfelt reminder to ensure their own well being while searching for her husband.
“Be safe out there,” she said.
On Wednesday morning, of the nearly 200 people at the command post, 35 were from Haywood County. The local agencies represented were the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, emergency services, search and rescue, special response team, Waynesville Fired Department, Jonathan Creek Fire Department and the Waynesville Police Department.
One of those 35 individuals was Emergency Services Director Greg Shuping, who took a few minutes to answer some questions from reporters. First he described the operation in general.
“We are working together along with resources from five states to find Kevin Lynch,” he said. “This is the highest priority for Haywood County and the park. We cannot emphasize enough how well we are working together and how important it is to note that there are many factors that are influencing a positive outcome. We also have a support network for these search teams. But above all, we have the best searchers from this region. They aren’t walking on trails simply looking. They are crawling through rhododendron thickets, they are climbing up and down waterfalls, they are using sophisticated technology. We are using all the resources at our fingertips.”
“We are optimistic because of these factors for a great outcome,” he added.
Shuping noted that an important part of any search and rescue operation is to “diagnose” the type of person who has gone missing. By putting themselves in the missing person’s mindset, searchers can better anticipate where and how to look.
“Even the greatest resources we have, we can’t afford to put them in the wrong place to be successful,” he said.
Shuping said that, with the assistance of other local agencies, sheriff’s deputies went to residences and other structures in the surrounding area to not only check for Lynch, but also make sure folks living near the search area were on the lookout.
“Several other agencies supported that effort but didn’t yield any clues to follow up on,” he said.
Although weather has been decent for the majority of the search, Wednesday brought with it some brief downpours. Even short spells of rain can be dangerous, he said. But Shuping said the incident management team at the command post near The Swag monitors the weather so searchers don’t have to. The only thing they should be worried about is finding Lynch, he said.
Shuping’s final message was for citizens to think about what information they can offer that might be useful. For those trying to find Lynch, no clue is unimportant.
“Any information, it doesn’t have to be about Mr. Lynch,” he said. “If the community has any information about the terrain, about a part area that’s maybe not on a trail or behind their yard or behind their residence that would be a hazard or an area someone like Kevin Lynch would go, if you know of a place like that, you can contact us and let us know.”
Sometimes it’s not a singular clue that leads to finding a missing person, Shuping said.
“Sometimes we take a small piece of information and put it together with another piece of information and another piece of information and it becomes the clue that leads to finding Kevin Lynch,” he said.
The other person speaking with members of the media was Chief Ranger Lisa Hendy. She said the search area is a radius of about 5 miles with the perimeter being monitored by local authorities. She didn’t mince words when talking about the difficulties of searching for a lost person in a place like this.
“This terrain is some of the most rugged in the country,” she said.
“There are steep drop-offs, and especially now that we’re getting a little bit of a rain here and there, it’s getting very slick and muddy, and it becomes more and more dangerous,” she added. “And oftentimes the vegetation is so thick that you could be walking down a slope or crawling in the rhododendron below and suddenly it drops and you can’t see that drop coming because the vegetation is so thick.”
Hendy said the technical nature of the search is one of the reasons it should be left to those who are part of the actual search and rescue operation. Even citizens who hike the trails and have the best of intentions should stay home and leave it to the professionals.
“Please, leave this to us to work,” she said.
This search has used multiple helicopters and drones to provide aerial views of the areas where Lynch may be hunkering down. But that isn’t too say airborne searches are most effective everywhere.
“That canopy is so thick, it’s very difficult to see through it,” she said. “Maneuvering a drone through that is extremely difficult as well. Those become more effective on the balds.”
“We’ve been flying over open grounds and power line right-of-ways, places like that,” she added. “That’s where we think aviation assets are more effective.”
Hendy said that while she has not led a search of this magnitude in the Smokies, she has been involved with several in multiple parks in the western part of the country.
“We have no more than one or two of this size in a year usually,” she said, adding that they have about 100 search and rescue operations of varying sizes every year.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the search is continuing, and there are no plans to stop any time soon.
According to a press release sent out Wednesday afternoon, a total of 209 searchers, trackers and incident command personnel associated with 32 agencies are being utilized in the search effort, with about 60 agencies assisting in the operation.
“We are very fortunate to have had such an outpouring of support from local emergency services agencies,” Incident Commander Mike Scheid said in the release. “We have the best of the best out in the field searching for Mr. Lynch and we are doing everything we can to bring him home safely. We continue to be very optimistic that the outcome of this search operation will be a positive one”.
Lynch is a white male approximately 5’5” feet tall, weighs 150 pounds, has brown (salt/pepper) hair and brown eyes. He was last seen wearing brown cotton shorts, a brown shirt with a white tail deer on it, and a camouflage baseball cap. He was last seen at approximately 3:20 p.m. walking along the park boundary at the Swag resort in Haywood County, North Carolina. Lynch, from Woodbridge New Jersey, suffers from dementia and may be confused as to his location. If anyone has seen Lynch since Saturday afternoon please call or text the Investigative Services Branch Tip Line at (888) 653-0009 or go to www.nps.gov/ISB and click “submit a tip.