British man rescued from Cox Canyon Arch after suffering heart attack recounts ordeal

London resident Danny McLaughlin survives, thanks to emergency help

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • McLaughlin and his wife were visiting the Cox Canyon Arch on May 16.
  • As they climbed the hillside to the arch, McLaughlin suffered a heart attack.
  • Emergency personnel from San Juan County and San Juan Regional Medical Center joined forces to rescue him.

FARMINGTON — A British man was resting comfortably at San Juan Regional Medical Center on the morning of May 18 after being plucked off a hilltop north of Aztec two days earlier via helicopter after suffering a heart attack.

Danny McLaughlin, a corruption and fraud investigator from London who was visiting the region while on holiday, was exploring the Cox Canyon Arch just south of the Colorado border and west of U.S. Highway 550 shortly before 10 a.m. May 16 with his wife Eileen. The two were nearing the end of their hike to the arch when McLaughlin said he began experiencing intense chest pains.

McLaughlin and his wife sat down to see if the pain would go away, but after 10 minutes, he said it was clear to him he was having a heart attack. When neither of them was able to get a cell phone signal to call 911, they made the decision for Eileen to hike back to the parking area and try to call for assistance from there.

"There was no way I could climb down again from the top," McLaughlin said.

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London resident Danny McLaughlin is treated by San Juan County Search & Rescue personnel after suffering a heart attack at the Cox Canyon Arch near the Colorado border on May 16.

As Eileen made her way down from the arch, McLaughlin kept trying his cell phone and eventually was able to get a call through to the San Juan County Communications Authority. He provided the dispatcher with his location and described his condition, and within 10 or 15 minutes, he said, help had arrived at the parking area. His wife Eileen was waiting there to lead San Juan County Fire & Rescue personnel to the spot where she had left him.

But the challenge of getting McLaughlin down off the hillside remained even when emergency personnel reached his side and began treating him. McLaughlin could not safely or swiftly be carried down off the hillside in a litter because of the nature of the terrain, and the ledge where he was lying was too small to allow a medevac air ambulance helicopter from the hospital to land.

Kevin Jones, division chief for San Juan County Fire & Rescue who was part of the contingent that responded to the call, said there is a makeshift trail up the hillside to the arch, but he described it as treacherous and vertical.

"There are places where people have carved handholds and footholds into the rock," he said.

London resident Danny McLaughlin is loaded aboard a medevac air ambulance helicopter from San Juan Regional Medical Center on May 16 at the Cox Canyon Arch after suffering a heart attack.

Rescue personnel considered the idea of rigging a rope-and-pulley system down the hillside to the parking area so that McLaughlin could be lowered to safety, and they had the equipment available to do that, Jones said. But that approach was dismissed as too time consuming, considering McLaughlin's condition, and another, more direct plan was put into action.

Jones said a chain saw was hiked up to the top of the hillside, and four or five small trees quickly were cut down, establishing a makeshift landing area for the helicopter. Once that task was accomplished, McLaughlin was placed in a litter, and rescue personnel carried him the remaining 200 feet up the hill to the helicopter, where has loaded aboard and whisked away to the hospital.

At San Juan Regional, McLaughlin was taken to the emergency room, where a doctor confirmed McLaughlin's suspicion that he had suffered a heart attack and likely would have died if help had not reached him so quickly. A stent was placed in his heart, and, by the morning of May 18, McLaughlin said he was experiencing no pain and was feeling well enough to describe his ordeal at length.

Danny McLaughlin says emergency personnel provided a swift and seamless response when he suffered a heart attack May 16 while visiting the Cox Canyon Arch.

He was effusive in his gratitude toward and admiration for the emergency personnel who responded to his situation and treated him, both at the scene and at the hospital.

"I can't praise all the people involved enough," he said.

McLaughlin said he was especially impressed with the speed with which emergency personnel arrived at the Cox Canyon Arch. He noted that ambulance service in his hometown is nowhere near as efficient.

"I can honestly say if I had been in London, I might not have survived," he said.

He also marveled at how all the different elements of the rescue operation came together.

"I would like to praise without reservation the seamlessness of the response," he said.

A medevac air ambulance helicopter from San Juan Regional Medical Center was used to transport heart attack victim Danny McLaughlin from a hilltop at the Cox Canyon Arch to the hospital on May 16, saving the London resident's life.

Jones said personnel from San Juan County Fire & Rescue districts 3 and 7 responded to the scene, along with a special response team and a team from the hospital in the medevac helicopter.

County spokesman Devin Neeley said county and hospital personnel are well versed in the challenges of working together in emergency situations, and he added the county has made some sizable investments in recent years in rescue equipment as more outdoor recreation opportunities become available in the area.

McLaughlin said it wasn't easy for him and his wife to make the decision for her to leave him on the hillside and go back to the parking area to try to get a cell phone signal. But he said it no doubt was the right call, even though he was able to reach emergency dispatch on his own phone.

McLaughlin remained calm while he was stretched out on a ledge waiting for help, taking in the natural beauty surrounding him even as he pondered his own demise.

"I must say, if I was going to die, this was a nice place to go — very relaxing, very peaceful," he said.

Eileen McLaughlin said by the time she got to the parking area and got through to 911, the dispatcher told her her husband was already on another line and help was on the way.

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"I didn't want to leave him on the mountaintop, but I had to," she said, adding that she wasn't even sure how to reach emergency dispatch in a foreign country. "This situation was fraught with all sorts of difficulties."

Eileen said she was much relieved when emergency personnel arrived at the scene, but she faced another challenge when she was called on to lead rescuers back up the hillside to her husband. The physical demands of navigating that trail for the third time were beginning to take a toll on her, she said.

"That was rather exhausting for me," she said.

As medical personnel worked on her husband, Eileen said she managed to keep herself calm by focusing on documenting the rescue effort. An accomplished photographer, she picked up her camera and began snapping away in an effort to keep herself from panicking over her husband's condition.

"That was my way of being useful and my way of being able to look back on it later, though I haven't been able to do that yet," she said.

The incident cut short the McLaughlins' plans to roam through the Southwest. They were visiting their daughter in Seattle when they decided to fly to Denver, rent a car and check out the sights between there and Salt Lake City. They had spent the night in Durango, Colorado, on Sunday and were headed to Cortez Monday morning when they spied a brochure for the Cox Canyon Arch at their hotel and decided to make a detour there.

That's where their plans for the rest of their holiday took a dramatic turn. McLaughlin said his daughter in Seattle already had flown to Farmington and was at his bedside on the morning of May 18, and another daughter was due in from London shortly.

He said he hoped to be released from the hospital within a couple of days and would travel back to Seattle to recuperate before flying home to London when he is able.

McLaughlin said his big takeaway from the experience was the message his rescuers imparted to him once they reached him — that he and his wife had done the right thing by calling them so quickly once he got into distress. The mistake many people make, they said, is waiting too long to summon help.

"We realized we had to make that call straightaway," he said.

Jones said he was proud of the way everyone involved in the incident joined forces to conduct what turned out to be a very challenging rescue.

"It was a great response," he said. "Everybody worked really well together, from formulating a plan to assembling the equipment needed to pull it off."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription: