Thousands of pounds and hundreds of man-hours were spent searching the Cheviots for a man who lied to hotel staff just to avoid paying an £80 bill.
A huge multi-agency search, which included three volunteer rescue teams, RAF Boulmer and Northumbria Police, was eventually called off last Friday afternoon after it was discovered that a man in his 40s had given false information to staff at the Black Bull, in Wooler, where he was staying.
In total, 29 volunteers from Northumberland National Park Mountain Rescue Team (NNPMRT) and search and rescue units from North of Tyne and Borders were called out last Thursday night, when hotel staff reported, in good faith, that a man, who gave his name as David Bibby, hadn’t returned after saying he was going cycling in the Cheviots for the day.
They spent about 385 man-hours searching the area in perilous conditions, until police called off the search.
An RAF Sea King helicopter, which costs £11,978 per hour to run, including paying for crew, an engineer and fuel, was in the air for nearly five-and-a-half hours across the two days.
That cost alone was £65,879.
NNPMRT team leader Iain Nixon said: “I was first on the scene and our priority is the wellbeing of that person. Yes, it used up a lot of people’s time and resources, but that is the service we provide.
“This was a good outcome as no one was injured and from our perspective it was a top training exercise.”
Damon Rodwell, of the Borders Search and Rescue Unit, said: “The conditions on the ridge were possibly the worst I’ve ever experienced. Driving horizontal snow and hail made it really pretty unpleasant. The strength of the gusts bowling in from the west was extraordinary. It’s difficult to convey the severity of the weather.”
He added: “The fact that on this occasion we may well have been searching for someone who had merely vanished to avoid a modest hotel bill is immaterial, and not something that detracts significantly from the feeling of a necessary job performed as professionally as possible.
“It’s always nice to save a life, of course, but it’s also satisfying to have eliminated possibilities and scenarios that needed to be checked.”
Police inquiries are still ongoing to trace the man, who left theBlack Bull after the first of his two-night stay. Hoel proprietor Christine Clow said that her staff had raised the alarm in good faith.
She said: “He had stopped here before, but it was two or three years ago. We recognised his face. But we have since looked it up on the computer and he had used a different name that time.
“He was very talkative in the bar. He told staff he was off cycling in the hills and would be back. So when he wasn’t back by 10pm we were worried. The onus was on us to raise the alarm. He has put hotel staff through a lot of worry about what had happened to him.”
The scale of search operation
Three search and rescue teams, with 29 volunteers who don’t get paid for their work, focused on the area to the west of Wooler (Wooler Common, College Valley and Bowmont Water Valley) and to the south and south west (Harthope and Breamish valleys). They also used six 4x4s across the area. The RAF Boulmer helicopter covered routes on the west side of Cheviots (Upper Coquetdale and Kidland areas) using night vision goggles and a heat-seeking camera.
Northumbria Police declined to give information about the cost of the search to prevent dissuading people from reporting missing persons.