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Published: Thursday, 6/19/2008

Phone calls lead crews to missing backpackers in Alaska

ASSOCIATED PRESS

ANCHORAGE - Two women missing in Denali National Park were found yesterday and reunited with worried family members, six days after heading off on what they thought would be an overnight hike.

A helicopter picked them up just outside the park about an hour after one of the hikers made a second cell phone call to her mother, park spokesman Kris Fister said.

Erica Nelson, 23, of Las Vegas and Abby Flantz, 25, of Gaylord, Minn., were taken to park headquarters, where family members were waiting.

Anchorage television station KTUU showed the pair laughing with family members and eating large, overstuffed deli sandwiches as they walked to a waiting ambulance. They didn't immediately speak to reporters.

The two embarked on the hike last Thursday. A massive search began for them on Saturday.

Nelson's mother, Ellane Nelson, received an initial cell phone call at 9:15 a.m. as she listened to park officials give a briefing on the search for her missing daughter.

She saw her daughter's caller ID on her cell phone and looked as if she had seen a ghost, park spokesman Ms. Fister said.

Park officials had reported the women were not carrying a cell phone, but caller ID indicated it was from the missing hiker.

Ellane Nelson heard her daughter say that she and Ms. Flantz, her 25-year-old roommate, were alive and well. Park officials told the women to stay put, make themselves visible and signal any helicopters that flew overhead.

The phone's battery was weak but park officials were able to locate the signal coming from the eastern section of the 100-square mile they had been searching for more than four days.

The agency dispatched two helicopters to pick the women up, but hours later the two women had not been found.

Ms. Fister said they initially thought the women were in the vicinity of a dry creek bed. But after the second phone call rescuers focused instead on a brushy area on the eastern edge of the search area north of Mount Healy, about five miles west of the Parks Highway, the main highway that connects Anchorage and Fairbanks, he said.

The search area about 180 miles north of Anchorage is a mix of national park and state-owned lands.

A helicopter, airplane, ground searchers, and two dog teams were deployed.

Erica Nelson and Ms. Flantz left Thursday from the Savage Creek checkpoint just 15 miles from the park entrance, intending to return the next day.

When the women did not show up for work Saturday at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, a hotel outside the park, they were reported overdue and a search of a 100-square-mile area began.



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