McAlhaney part of Everest rescue

  • Frank Fiorillo (center) was rescued by eight U.S. airmen earlier this month. Williston native Shane McAlhaney (pictured in brown jacket at end of first row) was part of the group. The airmen are pictured with Frank and his wife Nonie.
  • Shane McAlhaney stands at the Everest Base Camp, which is at an altitude of 17,598 feet.

A Williston native was among eight U.S. airmen who helped rescue an Australian man from Mount Everest.

Frank Fiorillo, 60, and his wife Nonie, 56, were nine days into a trek in Nepal when they were descending from the Mount Everest Base Center on Oct. 11. They were having a nice trip, although it was very cold and snowy, conditions the couple doesn’t experience back home in Australia.

However, Frank soon stopped and very quickly became delirious and collapsed. His eyes rolled back in his head and he was unresponsive.

“I was quite distressed seeing my husband like this when all of a sudden we were surrounded by these wonderful airmen. They completely came to our rescue,” said Nonie Fiorillo. The couple has been together for nearly 40 years.

Nonie Fiorillo was referring to eight members of the U.S. Air Force who helped her husband. The group was comprised of one pararescue specialist, who is highly trained in rescue and medical care, and seven combat control specialists, including Shane McAlhaney, who grew up in Williston.

“We could tell he was suffering from altitude sickness and needed to descend immediately,” said McAlhaney of how Fiorillo’s condition was worsening.

The airmen were embarked on a 12-day, 90-mile hiking trek in Nepal earlier this month, though they ended up completing it in nine days. The group encountered the Fiorillos on the seventh day of the trek. While several other people passed by without helping despite Nonie Fiorillo’s pleas for aid, the airmen went into rescue mode.

Rescuing is what McAlhaney and his fellow airmen are trained to do.

The group is stationed in Japan as part of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron. They provide special operations humanitarian aid and disaster relief for the Pacific, but also travel all over the Pacific training partner nations. They are in Nepal training the Nepalese army in rescue, including swift water rescue, structural collapse rescue, glacier climbing and other aspects that can help the Nepal special operations rescue people in times of disaster, he said.

That training and expertise came in handy as they quickly assessed Fiorillo’s condition and gave him altitude sickness medication. They determined that if they didn’t get Fiorillo down quickly that he would be in a “critical situation” where a helicopter rescue wouldn’t be possible. Since they were nowhere near a helicopter landing zone, the airmen carried Fiorillo.

“We told his guide that we were U.S. military, highly trained in rescue and medical training. Without skipping a beat, our work instinct came in and we got him standing and stumbling down the mountain,” said McAlhaney.

Leaving a guide with Fiorillo’s wife, the airmen did their best to navigate down the snowy, steep mountain to get Frank Fiorillo to a lower altitude.

Their assistant guide, who used to be a porter who carried up to 100 kilograms of weight up the mountain daily for work, picked up Fiorillo and tried to carry him on his back. However, he stopped about 300 meters in due to unstable conditions and terrible rocks and footing, said McAlhaney.

The group soon realized that one person would not be sufficient to carry Fiorillo down, so they switched to a two-person system.

“We carried him down for over an hour and a half,” said McAlhaney, the son of Robbie and Karen McAlhaney of Williston.

Fiorillo soon made a rapid recovery and was reunited with his wife. The couple is now holidaying in India for two weeks before they plan to return home to Australia.

McAlhaney said he believes things would not have turned out very good for Frank Fiorillo if they had not stopped to help. He said another Australian man died in the “same situation near the same area” in February due to altitude sickness.

The Fiorillos said they and their two children will be forever grateful to the airmen for providing life-saving assistance in one of the remotest and highest areas of the world.

“All those airmen are true heroes. They assessed the situation, knew what to do, and did what they had to do. Without them I don’t know what the outcome would have been for me,” said Frank.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a religious person, Nonie said her husband’s rescue was a miracle and has led her to believe there is a higher god.

If timing or other circumstances had been different, the Fiorillos and American airmen might never have met.

“It was a miracle we happened to leave Gorakshep minutes before these guys. It was the right timing for us,” said Nonie, who calls the Himalayas a “very spiritual place to be.”

The airmen woke up at 4 a.m. that day to do a sunrise hike to view Everest from a new spot. However, a snowstorm led them to ditch the hike. They then had breakfast and packed up to hike down, which led them to discover the Fiorillos.

“Frank and I have been together for almost 40 years and that day I do believe our guardian angels were looking out for us,” said Nonie. “I do hope we reunite with these eight guys again one day to give them yet again more big Aussie hugs,” said Nonie.

McAlhaney graduated from Jefferson Davis Academy in 2006 and joined the Air Force special operations in 2010. He trained for about two and a half years before being assigned a job. He has been deployed three times to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq for combat operations attached to Army Special Forces and Navy SEAL teams.