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UNT student shares survival story with young rescuers-in-training

Three weeks ago, University of North Texas student Amber VanHecke returned to Denton after being stranded in the Arizona desert for five days. On Monday, the girl who "did everything right" to stay alive shared her experience with a group of local rescuers-in-training at the Denton Enterprise Airport.

About 30 Civil Air Patrol squadron cadets, whose ages ranged from 12 to 18 years old, listened to VanHecke recount her misadventure near the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.

On March 12, VanHecke's GPS system led her far off the beaten path during what was supposed to be a cheap spring break vacation at the Grand Canyon. In the following days, she created a large "Help" sign with rocks to catch rescuers' attention. She also made signal fires and left notes for anyone looking for her.

If it weren't for her survival skills, troopers with the Arizona Department of Public Safety may not have found her.

The cadets learn about the types of search and rescue tactics that helped locate VanHecke. Lt. Col. Stephen Robertson, the former squadron commander and a current instructor for the group, said VanHecke's skills are perfect examples of what they teach the cadets to look out for.

"[Her 'Help' sign] is what caught my attention first, because that's right out of our textbook," he said.

Civil Air Patrol is a U.S. Air Force Auxiliary and Robertson said it's the largest volunteer search and rescue organization in the country. The cadet program helps young students get into college, a service academy or the military after high school.

Wearing military fatigues, the cadets peppered VanHecke with questions about her survival strategy. While Robertson said the students could use the information during a rescue operation, he said they could also apply the information if they find themselves in a similar situation.

"When you go out somewhere where there's a chance you could get lost or something could happen, it's a really good idea to have some resources with you," cadet Savannah Laitinen said.

Cadet Matthew Garcia said he enjoyed hearing about real-life examples of their classroom lessons.

"It's always good to know that all of this isn't just in theory and that it can actually be used in practice," he said.

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882