In Search for Escapees, Voracious Bugs, Poisonous Plants and Muddy Woods
Officers searching along a forested area in Cadyville, N.Y., for two prisoners who escaped last week from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y.
“I’m sure if they’re out in the elements, they’re not having a good time,” said Dan Ladd, an outdoors columnist for a local newspaper, The Press-Republican, in Plattsburgh. “It can’t be fun.”
For days, hundreds of searchers have been working around the clock, pushing deeper into an area of homes and dense woodlands, trying to find Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, who turns 35 on Sunday, after their escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. If the men have been stuck in this muddy thicket of pine and spruce since their escape, they have been confronted by inhospitable conditions that could make finding food, water and shelter a challenge but would also complicate the efforts to track them down.
“You’ve got to assume they’re cold, wet, tired and hungry,” Major Charles E. Guess of the New York State Police said in a news conference on Friday. Even experienced campers and hikers would be challenged by conditions in the woods, and there is no evidence that the two men had any extensive outdoor skills.
On Saturday, conditions in Dannemora and surrounding areas were actually idyllic: warm sun, clear skies and a gentle breeze. A cordon of some 300 members of the Corrections Department Emergency Response Team – CERT – prepared to canvass yet another swath of woods and wilderness just south of the prison along Route 3. Wearing dark blue fatigues, heavy vests and sidearms, team members – some already sweating and gulping water – were encouraged by supervisors, who also reminded them to “check your ammo.”
“Good job, Team 11,” one said. “You guys are solid.”
Spaced in between the team members were State Police troopers and rangers, some carrying rifles. It was a surreal and unnerving sight for some residents of Route 3, the line of men along the highway another sign of the strangeness – and unpleasantness — of life here right now.
“We’re sick of being prisoners in our own home,” said Shelly St. Denis, 37, who said she had been scared often during the last week, but was comforted by the sight of the search teams. But like others in the area, Ms. St. Denis said she had also taken some security steps of her own.
“I’m not a gun person,” she said. “But I’ll tell you what: We have a gun.”
After lining up along Route 3, the CERT teams – each man spaced about 20 feet apart – marched down the embankment and into the woods, cracking brush along the way. Other teams fanned out through pastures, where several corralled horses sauntered.
The number of people searching have slowly grown as the days have passed, with state officials now saying more than 800 are hunting Mr. Matt and Mr. Sweat in a five-square-mile area east of the prison. On Saturday morning, the teams along Route 3 were pushing north, back towards the Clinton Correctional Facility: slowly, arduously checking every acre, often stopping – “Hold!” members shout – and then moving on.
Alexandra Farrington, 22, a recent graduate of George Mason University, had come home to Cadyville on Wednesday after a trip to Eastern Europe. She was amazed, and frightened, by what was happening in her hometown.
“It’s ironically safer in Albania,” she said. “I came here and I can’t go outside.”
Those who know the terrain have made jokes that, if the men are in these woods, they are surprised the pair have not turned themselves over to the authorities by now, beaten up by nature and begging for a break. The rain has fallen regularly and hard. The woods are filled with skunks, porcupines and black bears. Then there are the bugs that swarm the forest this time of year: black flies, ticks and deer flies.
Harrison Hobbs, center, and Emily Oczechowski at the Cadyville firehouse.
There are many threats from nature that the escapees would face, those who know the woods said.
They could catch Lyme disease from the ticks or they could drink contaminated water. There is poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac and hogweed, and days spent slushing through the rain and mud leaves them vulnerable as well. “The dangers at this point, if they are not in a cabin, are hypothermia, dehydration and exhaustion,” said Shane Hobel, founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School in Beacon, N.Y.
Survival experts say sustenance is available: The woods are crowded with deer during these months, so they could kill one and eat the meat. Wild strawberries, or the inner bark of some trees, such as birch and white pine, can also be eaten. But there are still plenty of hardships. If they wanted to start a fire for warmth or cooking, they would have to be careful because the smoke could give away their location. They may not have the necessary tools to hunt. “And unless they know their edible plants, which I highly doubt these guys do, they’re in trouble,” Mr. Hobel said.
The typically quiet and idyllic landscape near Cadyville, a small community southeast of Dannemora, has been interrupted by the helicopters hovering over the woods, fleets of four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles and officers lining major roadways and blocking streets.
But it is unclear what, if anything, has come of the search.
The conditions that would make existence difficult for the men trying to hide are certainly not any easier for the law enforcement officers they are trying to evade. (More than one police officer with a drier assignment has quietly confessed that they do not envy their colleagues in the field.)
For one thing, Mr. Ladd said, the wet ground makes it harder for investigators to hear any footsteps. And in woods as thick as these, visibility is severely limited. “Someone could be hiding six feet away from you, and you couldn’t see them,” said Harrison Hobbs, 60, one of the emergency medical technicians at the firehouse.
Ms. Oczechowski, a native of the area, added that investigators were venturing into rarely visited places. “This is probably the most it’s been walked ever,” she said.
Many around here are stumped by the possibility that they did not get any farther than a few miles from the prison. The authorities said there have been more than 700 leads, and searchers have looked in the nearby community of Willsboro. Officials have also raised the possibility that they might have fled to Vermont. But in recent days, the search has zeroed in on this area.
“They didn’t make it that far,” Ms. Oczechowski said. “I’m just saying.”
Danny Sullivan, 24, said the whole ordeal has reminded him of another escape: A while back, one of his family’s pigs got away and they had to search through the woods. “It’s thick, thick, thick,” he said.