Monticello emergency dispatcher Gail Hyatt is being hailed as a hero for her role in the rescue of a man who was lost and surrounded by flames in the Drew County wildfire that burned more than 600 acres.
During a 35-minute 911 call early Thursday evening, Hyatt reassured and encouraged the man while firefighters, law enforcement officers and Arkansas Forestry Commission personnel worked to locate and guide him to safety.
Michael Fritts was checking on his preparations for deer season in a wooded area between Tennessee Spur and his home on Allis Road in Wilmar when he found himself surrounded by flames.
Lost, out of breath, disoriented and tired, Fritts fled the approaching flames for 35 minutes while Hyatt encouraged him to “keep moving.”
“I can’t breathe. My legs are weak,” he said 24 minutes into the phone call. “I’m dizzy.”
Three minutes later, he told Hyatt he was in a pine thicket and the fire was about two seconds behind him.
“I’m in a pine thicket,” he said. “I’m not going to make it.”
“Yes, you’re going to make it,” Hyatt said. “You’re going to make it. Don’t you give up.”
Hyatt continued encouraging him.
“You’re going to be OK,” she assured him. “You’re doing good. Don’t give up.”
About 29 minutes into the call, Fritts said, “Oh hell, here comes the fire, ma’am. I’m in the pine thicket. I can’t make it through the pine thicket.”
“Get out of that pine thicket!” she said.
“You’re not going to give up,” she said. “You’re going to keep going, OK.”
“I’m going,” he said.
“If you have to, crawl, but get out of there.”
Meanwhile, Hyatt was also communicating with Monticello Fire Chief Kelly Reid, Drew County Sheriff Mark Gober, Monticello Police Capt. Carlos Garcia and Monticello Police Investigator Kenny Cox.
Garcia was utilizing the 911 system and cell phone pings to determine Fritts’ location.
“We tried to get the 911 system to locate him by the ping on the cell phone by basically triangulating to see where the cell phone signal was coming from,” Garcia said. “We finally got that and we noticed he was between Tennessee Spur and Allis Road, deep in the woods… and could see that he was moving west from the Tennessee Spur area.”
Cox and the Arkansas Forestry Commission were coordinating the air search for Fritts.
Cox was relaying information to an Arkansas Forestry Commission pilot through the Arkansas Forestry Commission dispatcher.
Gober and Reid were guiding from the scene of the fire and sounding sirens.
Since Fritts was disoriented and had no sense of direction, Reid suggested that he walk toward the sun. But Fritts couldn’t see the sun; the smoke was too dense.
Eventually, however, he could hear the sirens. He followed the sound until he emerged from the woods
He was exhausted, dehydrated, and had difficulty standing, according to Gober, who took him to an ambulance on standby about 300 yards away.
“He got really lucky,” Reid said. “A lot of good work by a lot of good people saved that man’s life.”
Garcia said the reason Fritts remained calm and kept going was Hyatt’s reassurance that he was going to make it.
“Miss Gail kept him calm and motivated,” Garcia said.
Hyatt, who will be retiring in December, attributed to experience her ability to remain calm under pressure.
“I’ve been doing this 30 years,” she said.