Garry West of Knoxville made a career of giving people help and hope from above. He flew helicopters during the Vietnam War, continued serving as a pilot in the National Guard, and spent decades flying EMS helicopters for Lifestar.
When the Blizzard of 1993 marooned hundreds of hikers in the snowy mountains, West and other pilots volunteered to help.
"It was a 100-year storm. It was something they hadn't seen before and something they won't see again," said West. "One of my fellow pilots at Lifestar asked if I wanted to go look for hikers [the Sunday after the storm]. We took off around 8:00 a.m. and flew until dark. I was the copilot in a crew of four."
The helicopter crew also included a civilian from Tellico Plains who was familiar with the Cherokee National Forest.
"We picked up a preacher from Tellico Plains and he was invaluable. He knew where every campground and campsite was and we were able to find all the people we knew were out in the wilderness. It helped so much having him because everything looks different when it is covered in snow. Even is a little more difficult. Back then, we didn't have GPS. Our navigation was a finger on a map," said West.
The helicopter West was co-piloting did not have a hoist and cable to reel people out of the snow. The aircraft would have to land to load anyone on board. West said they quickly realized that would not be possible when they spotted their first hikers.
"They were at a pickup truck and the top of the pickup was all we could see. We tried to land, but the snow was too deep and the aircraft kept trying to roll over on us. So, we went back and picked up some snowshoes, some food, and dropped it down to them. When we dropped the bag, it hit the snow, and made a deep tunnel. It was really something to see them disappear down that deep hole to get the bag we dropped, but they got it," said West.
Unable to land in the deep snow, West said the crew shifted to a new scouting mission to pinpoint the location of as many people as possible.
"The next day, the big Blackhawk helicopters were set to arrive from Fort Campbell. So, we just went around and found the exact location of everyone so they could hoist them out. We found a teacher and a student who were part of a big group from Michigan that had to be rescued. The instructor, his feet were frozen in blocks of ice. We found those people and they got out the next day," said West.
With the sun going down and no more supplies to drop stranded hikers, West spotted one last group of hikers buried in a Ford Bronco.
"I remember people waving at us. There was not anything we could do for them at that point, so I decided to send them a message and give them a little hope. I pulled a blank page out of the log book, scribbled the word 'tomorrow' on it," said West.
West handed the not back to a crew member, who attached the note to a set of pliers to give it weight, wrapped it in a red rag, and dropped it to the hikers below. One of the hikers was Roger Redding of Maryville.
Feb. 21, 2018: 'Tomorrow is a gift' for hiker rescued in Blizzard of 1993
"Out comes this red thing. I volunteered to go get it, opened it up, and it was a maintenance log with one word on it. It said the word 'tomorrow.' And that was the most glorious thing. Tomorrow! We were going to get rescued or something good was going to happen tomorrow. We all broke out into the song from the Annie musical," said Redding.
The next day, a Blackhawk helicopter lifted Redding and four other hikers from the wilderness after three days stuck in the mountains, surrounded by snow drifts 12 feet deep.
WBIR interviewed Redding about the experience when he was rescued in 1993 and did a 25-year follow-up that aired in February 2018. In a bible in his office, Redding still keeps the message that fell from above.
"I have that folded-up piece of maintenance log that has the word tomorrow on it. Tomorrow is a gift. Tomorrow is a gift," said Redding.
West saw the story on WBIR and was surprised to see the note he wrote 25 years ago.
"I was not expecting to see that old note I wrote with a pencil. That note meant a lot to them, just to know they had a little hope for the next day. It made me feel like I accomplished something and helped somebody out," said West.
All told, helicopter crews rescued more than 200 people from the mountains and no hikers died during the Blizzard of 1993.