Dispatcher recounts harrowing call from downed pilot

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

FULTON – On Feb. 14, at about 9:30 in the morning, Lisa Brown received a somewhat unusual phone call.
As a dispatcher for Itawamba County’s 911 system, Brown is accustomed to receiving all kinds of strange calls. But this one was even more off-kilter than normal.
“[The caller] was out of breath and gasping, ‘Plane crash; plane crash,’” Brown said. “I told him he was going to have to calm down, steady himself and take deep breaths.”
The caller was 49-year-old Greg Huggins, who was piloting his single-engine Piper Saratoga aircraft en route from Florida to Olive Branch when his plane apparently ran out of gas, causing him to crash just off Lost Corners Road, near the Monroe County/Itawamba county line.
For the next three hours, Brown would stay in near constant contact with Huggins as police searched for his plane.
“He had no real idea where he was,” Brown said a few days after the event. “He thought he was about 13 miles south of Tupelo, which turned out to be true. But he didn’t know exactly where he had crashed.”
In order to determine just how bad Huggins’ situation was, Brown began to ask him a series of questions: Where he was flying from; where he was going; what type of plane he was flying; whether or not he could escape the plane.
Gradually, Huggins told her he was still in the cockpit of his plane, trapped and confused. When asked if he could define his surroundings, the pilot simply said, “Trees.” Asked if he was hurt, Huggins said, “Face.”
Brown said she felt like she was walking a thin line between needing to gather information from the injured pilot while also keeping from wasting his energy.
“I didn’t want to stress him out or make him talk too much,” she said. “He needed to save his breath. I didn’t know how bad he was hurt … I told him to try to give me one word answers to save his breath.
“He complied very well. He never got over-excited anymore. He was as calm as he could be in his situation.”
Eventually, Brown garnered bits and pieces of information, such as the trees surrounding him were hardwood, and he was near a field.
But even with Brown relaying all this information to law enforcement officials searching for Huggins, his plane couldn’t be found. As time stretched on, the conversation between Brown and Huggins ebbed and flowed, with long gaps of silence punctuated by occasional gasps and groans. Brown said it was important to let Huggins conserve his energy, but equally important that she keep him alert.
“I didn’t want him to go to sleep or pass out on me,” she said, adding that the two of them talked about a variety of subjects, but Brown avoided asking about family or friends for fear it would depress Huggins.
She said the longer time stretched on, the more nervous she got.
“It was very frustrating,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything to help him but talk … It was just nerve-racking knowing that I couldn’t help him. You’re just sitting here, and you can’t do anything for him, even though you want to so bad.”
She said he was getting frustrated, too.
Then, about an hour in, the call dropped. Brown remained calm, but began to worry.
“I had his phone number and name, but I didn’t know if he could get to the phone again,” she said. Brown called multiple times and kept getting Huggins’ voicemail. But the dispatcher kept her cool.
“You have to be patient and try to stay calm,” she said. “It’s not going to do any good to get upset. That just hurts the situation.”
After about five minutes, Huggins called back. The two of them remained on the phone with each other for another two hours.
The longer the two talked, the more obvious it became that Huggins was fading away.
“He was getting weak,” she said. “He kept telling me, ‘It’s been so long,’ and ‘They have to hurry.’”
About five minutes before authorities found Huggins’ plane, the call dropped again. Brown said she wasn’t on the line when Huggins was rescued. In a way, it was an anticlimactic end to the experience, but a satisfying one nonetheless.
Huggins’ plane was belly-up, hidden among a cluster of trees in a gully. It was almost invisible from the road.
“We had officers all around him, but they just couldn’t find him,” Brown said. “Really, it was just amazing that he was still alive.”
Huggins was still under the care of doctors late last week at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, suffering from facial lacerations, broken ribs and a leg injury. His condition was unknown Wednesday.
Brown, meanwhile, was back at work. Even though it had been days, she said she was still emotionally and physically drained from the lengthy call.
adam.armour@journalinc.com