Neil Powell's Search Dogs and Me

New book charts rescue expert's extraordinary missions, from Lockerbie to the Mourne Mountains

Neil Powell will never forget Christmas Eve 1988. On December 21, Pan Am Flight 103 crashed at Lockerbie killing all 243 passengers, 16 crew and a further 11 people on the ground. Three days later, Powell, who had over 15 years experience of mountain rescue missions in the Mourne Mountains, was at the clean-up operation in Scotland.

Flown in by the RAF, Powell and his mountain rescue dog, Pepper, spent five days at Lockerbie. ‘I don’t want to go into it, but there was human debris in the bushes and trees where the bodies had disintegrated,’ he says from his home in Newcastle, County Down. ‘I’d never been in a situation like that before. Up until then I’d been quite a squeamish person but sometimes you’ve no choice.’

Each year, the Irish Mountain Rescue service receives around 250 call outs across the island. When they do, the task of finding the missing often falls to remarkable people like Powell.

‘When you’re out on the mountains even relatively minor things like broken ankles can become life-threatening,’ he says. Winter poses very specific challenges for search and rescue missions, as Powell explains: ‘Ice, snow, fog, lower temperatures, these are all major hazards on the mountain.’

Powell is responsible for arguably the most important change in mountain rescue practice in Ireland: the introduction of search dogs.

When this erstwhile schoolteacher and self-confessed climbing ‘obsessive’ joined the Mourne Mountain Rescue team in the 1970s, search operations on both sides of the border were conducted entirely by humans. Powell thought man’s best friend might be able to speed up and improve what was hitherto a slow, laborious and often dangerous process.

‘Many nights when we were out searching for people on the mountains, you’d see shepherds using dogs to round up their flock. I thought, "Why can’t we get dogs to help us to look for people?”,’ recalls Powell, who has written a book, Search Dogs and Me, about his experience.

With a little help from a mountain rescue team in Glencoe, in the Scottish highlands, he began training dogs for use in search operations closer to home.

In 1982, after countless training exercises, Powell and Kim, his German shepherd, finally received their first genuine call-out: his GP had gone missing on Slieve Donard, the highest peak in Northern Ireland, in treacherous conditions.

Thanks to Kim the doctor was finally located after an extensive search – although he wasn’t exactly overjoyed to see his patient. ‘The doc was suffering pretty badly from hypothermia by the time we got to him,’ Powell recalls. ‘He was pretty irrational, and he didn’t even recognise me.’ The GP still gets a ‘bit of ribbing’ in Newcastle, but without Powell – and Kim – he would probably have perished on the mountain.

Powell returned home from Lockerbie with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which only came to light five years later when he was studying for a Masters in counselling at Queen’s University. ‘Something like Lockerbie confronts you with the reality that life isn’t ordered, it isn’t predictable, and that can be very shocking.’

Nevertheless, Powell continued to take his dogs to rescue missions around the world. He recalls struggling in vain to find a young girl buried beneath rubble following the catastrophic earthquake that hit Turkey in 1999.

Meanwhile, in Kashmir, Charco successfully located a man who had been trapped for 36 hours. ‘To see him being pulled out alive was just amazing,’ Powell, who has also trained dogs in counterfeit disc detection in the US, says with typical understatement.

Originally from Cobh in County Cork, after 40 years, Powell’s heart is firmly in County Down. But having given up teaching more than a decade ago, a quiet retirement is the last thing on his mind.

When he’s not leading search and rescue missions on the Mournes or nearby Carlingford Lough, he is busy pioneering dog trailing, a cutting-edge technique that allows police to trace missing persons by the unique scent residue that each of us leaves on our clothes and the locations we pass through.

Search Dogs and Me is a paean to one man’s canine passion. ‘I prefer dogs to people,’ admits Powell, who lives with his wife and their eight dogs. ‘Dogs are characters. They have a lot more feeling and emotions than many people realise. I wrote the book as a way of perpetuating the memory of the dogs that passed on and to show people how great dogs can be.’

Search Dogs and Me is out now from Blackstaff Press, price £12.99