Off-duty firefighter, teen boy killed while rappelling at Echo Canyon

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- An off-duty firefighter and teen boy were killed and another teen was injured when they fell while rappelling at Echo Canyon on Camelback Mountain Friday morning.

A spokeswoman for the Phoenix Fire Department identified the firefighter as Gary Johnstone. He was with the Phoenix Fire Department for 15 years and the Sun City Fire Department for 10 years prior to that. He joined the PFD Technical Rescue Team in 2006.

Police identified the deceased teen as 15-year-old Trevor Crouse.

Rescue crews were called out at about 7 a.m., not knowing one of their own was involved.

Aerial video from Chopper 3 showed firefighters with the patients, an adult man and two teenage boys, about 200 meters up the trail. The 15-year-old boys are friends of one of Johnstone's sons, who was watching the maneuver from nearby.

"The information that we're getting right now is that they were possibly all rappelling together as a group," Capt. Mark Vanacore of the Phoenix Police Department told 3TV's Ryan O'Donnell as the rescue operation was wrapping up.

Preliminary reports are that the trio fell about 30 feet from the boulder near the trailhead known as the Sugar Cube.

"I don't know necessarily if they were tied together or not," said Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Steve Martos. "We do know that three of them fell together."

Johnstone and Crouse were transported to hospitals in extremely critical condition. Johnstone later died at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn Medical Center and Crouse at Phoenix Children's Hospital. The other teenage boy suffered minor injuries.

Chopper 3 was overhead as rescue crews rushed the patients down the mountain, two of them on big wheels.

"This is rugged terrain," Vanacore said.

Police are trying determine exactly what happened in the moments before the trio fell. While they believe this was an accident, they have to investigate any time there is a fatality.

"Making sure that they have the scene surveyed, and any equipment that might be left up there, taking a look at it and trying to piece together exactly what happened," Vanacore said of the investigation.

The trail was closed for most of the day for the investigation but has reopened.

"Those mountains are incredibly dangerous and they know no boundaries," said Deputy Fire Chief Shelley Jamison. "The level of experience doesn't necessarily play a part in what can happen on them, so always encourage people to be incredibly careful when they're hiking or climbing on the mountain parks here in Phoenix."

Johnstone was also a member of the Phoenix Fire Department Honor Guard Pipes and Drums. He often played bagpipes at funerals for first responders.

"He was a well-respected firefighter and pipe major," said Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner. "He loved his job, he loved his community, and he lived to serve us. Our hearts go out to Gary's family and friends as they grieve his loss."

"This just isn't easy right now," Vanacore said. "Our hearts are heavy and it's really difficult."

The Echo Canyon trail on Camelback Mountain, one of the Valley's most popular hiking trails, reopened to the public on Jan. 15, after a $4.34 million renovation project that took a year to complete.

Because of its popularity, Echo Canyon has been the site of many mountain rescues.