Several groups of Clay County emergency response personnel were able to practice their skills during a search for six Vigo County residents reported missing during a fishing trip at Chinook Coal Mine late Friday evening.
Officials initially believed they were looking for children or young adults, but then breathed a collective sigh of relief when they learned the group ranged between 18-35 years old.
"The group was fishing in an area known as Stitch Lake. They had cell phones and were able to assist us in finding them," Clay County Sheriff's Deputy/K-9 Handler Josh Clarke said about the group, who got turned around in the darkness after their lantern went out while heading back to their vehicle.
"We're all glad this turned out good. If this would have involved teenagers, or especially small children, this would have been a much more stressful situation."
Members of the Clay County Sheriff's Department, Clay County Emergency Management, Cory and Posey Volunteer Fire Departments, Clay County Search and Rescue and the Clay County Sheriff's Posse mounted the search effort after a family member of the group and mine security personnel contacted the Clay County Justice Center shortly after 11:30 p.m., Friday.
They were dispatched to an area north of Lower Bloomington Road and just west of County Road 500 West.
With the vast size of the mine area extending into neighboring Vigo County, the Vigo County Sheriff's Department was also notified about the search in case the missing individuals wandered into their county.
"Once we realized they were fine and all we had to do was find them, this turned into a great opportunity for a training exercise," Clarke said.
Clay County Emergency Management Director Bryan Husband, who was on the scene to provide assistance if needed, agreed.
"This gave the various groups involved in this situation a real-life scenario to work on and hone their skills," Husband said.
"Without it being an emergency situation, they were able to focus on their training and their responses."
As with real-life situations, the unpredictable happened during communication between the group lost in the darkness, searchers and incident command.
Three members of the fishing party had cell phones, which helped officials determine their welfare and to locate their general area, but some confusion arose when cellular towers bounced the group's phone signals between Vigo and Clay County 911-dispatch centers.
Thermal imaging cameras and ThinkMap technology was used on the scene by more than 40 emergency response personnel on the ground as Air Evac assisted with an aerial search.
Shortly before 2 a.m., officials reunited the six individuals with family members waiting at the incident command center based on Lower Bloomington Road.
"Everyone is fine, and we're grateful this turned out this way in the end," Clarke said. "We used this incident as a training exercise. We can always use the training because you never know what will happen next."
Clarke said further details are unavailable at this time due to an ongoing investigation into the event.