Pilot Mountain News

Missing man found safe after 4-hour search

A Silver Alert case on Wednesday had a happy ending for those involved — but not before some anxious moments.

Searchers found 73-year-old Robert Eugene Abeyta in a heavily wooded area near his Pinnacle home after he had been missing for nearly five hours. Suffering from dementia, Abeyta had wondered away from his home on Butner Road around 10 o’clock that morning.

With temperatures in the upper-30s — and a wind chill factor that made the air feel like it was 10 degrees colder at times, searchers were worried about his exposure to the elements.

““I think we were very fortunate to find him as quickly as we did,” said John Shelton, Surry County Emergency Services director.

He said a North Carolina Highway Patrol helicopter spotted Abeyta along a creek, about a mile from his house, and rescuers reached him shortly thereafter, at 2:41 p.m.

“It was very rough terrain,” Shelton said. “We actually had to access him through the railroad there. That was the only way we could get to him.”

Shelton said by that time, Abeyta had stopped walking and sat down; he was suffering from exposure to the cold and had gotten sick.

The EMS director said there were more than two dozen local officials involved in the search, including individuals from the Pinnacle Volunteer Rescue Squad, the Shoals Volunteer Fire Department, the Surry County Sheriff’s Office, other EMS workers, the Mount Airy K-9 unit, the North Carolina Highway Patrol, and even a bloodhound unit from the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office.

Shelton said Abeyta’s wife noticed he was missing around 10 a.m., and after searching for him for about a half-hour, called his office.

Shelton said the Mount Airy K-9 unit picked up Abeyta’s trail soon after arriving.

“They had a pretty good trail, exactly which direction he was heading in, but we had exhausted that dog, so we called in the bloodhound and at the same time called in the highway patrol’s helicopter,” he said of how the search unfolded.

His department also issued the Silver Alert around 2 p.m., shortly after the highway patrol’s helicopter had joined the search.

Once rescuers got to him, they transported Abeyta to Northern Hospital of Surry County. Shelton said Abeyta, was “going through a warming process” there while being observed by hospital staff. “After that, they’ll decided whether to release him or not,” he said.

Shelton said searching for lost elderly people is becoming a frequent occurrence.

“It happens pretty often now, because there are a lot of people in the county now affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s.” Thus far in 2017, he said his department has been called in on 16 such cases.

By John Peters

jpeters@mtairynews.com