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December 3rd is a special day at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It's the day that Wannetta Johnson delivers a poinsettia to
Park Headquarters as she has done every December 3rd
for the past 35 years. And not just any poinsettia.
It's the largest and most beautiful poinsettia her florist
in Johnson City, TN, can provide, because this
is not simply a holiday decoration.
This poinsettia represents Wannetta's appreciation to the Park
for saving her son Eric's life over three decades ago.
This year, Eric joined his mother on her annual visit and recalled
what happened back in 1974 during the Thanksgiving backpacking trip
when he and high school friend Randy Laws became snow bound for
three days at the Tricorner *** shelter on the Appalachian Trail.
ERIC JOHNSON: It started snowing heavily early in the afternoon.
Because we didn't want to be hiking while it was snowing so heavily,
we decided to spend that night in Tricorner *** shelter
and make up the difference the next day.
Unfortunately, on Sunday morning when we woke up the
snow had still been falling. It had been falling all night.
By that time the snow had accumulated in drifts of 4 to 5 feet.
After two hours of trudging through the snow, Eric and Randy
realized they had only covered about a quarter of a mile.
Wisely, the two experienced young backpackers returned to the shelter
to spend another night.
DWIGHT MCCARTER: The weather was terrible, freezing, snow, high winds,
blowing winds, trees bending over and everything.
I was with the group that got the snowmobile stuck and we were just
stuck there trying to get it unstuck and they determined to use
a helicopter and that's how they first spotted them.
ERIC JOHNSON: I put my partner's red backpack as a signal
outside the shelter on a stick because it was bright red
and I figured it would be readily visible from the air.
And I also stamped out the word "help," H-E-L-P,
in about 20 foot high letters in the snow.
Park rangers and a Chinook helicopter crew from Ft. Campbell
located and rescued the freezing and exhausted boys amid torturous winds.
And with that, an amazing story that included epic snowfall,
two boys' will to survive, multiple rescue attempts by the park service,
and eventually the assistance of the Army, gained a new chapter--
the incredible dedication of a mother who remembers still
that the ending to this story could have been much different.
WANNETTA JOHNSON: My cups running over with happiness.
You saved Eric's life and that means you saved ours.
It's just my way of telling the rangers, well, they risked their lives that day.