As a helicopter circles overhead, a large “SOS” stamped into the snow comes into view. Next to it is a lone figure, walking among piles of snow, waving his arms.
Tyson Steele had not had proper shelter in weeks. In fact, it had been more than 20 days since an inferno ignited in his remote Alaskan cabin, driving him into the subzero temperatures and snow, killing his dog and leaving Steele to fend for himself.
A 30-year-old homesteader originally from Utah, Steele was rescued by a helicopter team Thursday, the Alaska State Troopers said in an eight-page report. The authorities posted video of the rescue on Facebook.
After his family and friends had not heard from Steele in weeks, they asked for a welfare check.
“The request is what alerted us to go look for him,” Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers, said in an interview Sunday. “The SOS might eventually have drawn a passing pilot to investigate, but hard to say when — it had already been more than three weeks.”
Steele, who had been living alone in Alaska since September, said he had purchased the property from a Vietnam War veteran. His nearest neighbor was 20 miles away, according to the report.
“Miles and miles of forests, hills, rivers and lakes separated him from the road system,” the report said, noting that the cabin was “in a remote corner of the Susitna Valley.”
On the day of his rescue, the authorities said Steele sat at the Alaska State Troopers’ Aircraft Section Hangar at Lake Hood, nursing a hot cup of coffee, and looking every bit like the survivor of the ordeal he had just endured: His long hair hung matted and frayed over his neck. His hands were rough and ash stained. His beard reached his chest.
A “hasty mistake” was what began Steele’s survival story.
“My wood stove is very, very old,” he told troopers, adding that he “put a big piece of cardboard in the stove to start the fire.”
“I’ve had wood stoves all my life; I knew that you don’t do that,” he said. “So, it sent a spark out through the chimney, which landed on the roof.”
Hours later, Steele awoke in the early morning to a cold cabin on Dec. 17 or 18 (he’s not entirely certain, the report said), and there’s a “drip, drip, drip — there’s fiery drips of plastic coming through the roof above me.”
“So, I go outside” — to pick up some snow, he said — “and I just see that the whole roof’s on fire.”
At that point, Steele said all he had on were boots with no socks, long johns and a heavy wool sweater. The fire spread quickly, according to the report, and Steele had no time to pause.
His dog, a 6-year-old chocolate Labrador named Phil, was still in the cabin.
Steele said he grabbed everything that was on his bed, some coats, some sleeping bags, and rushed outside. He called for his dog, and Phil jumped off the bed.
“I think it’s good, right? I think he’s left,” he said.
From the outside, Steele said the whole cabin was on fire. As he went to grab his rifle on the other side of the cabin, Steele said he heard howling.
“I have no words for what sorrow,” he said. “It was just, just a scream. Just a visceral — not angry, not sad, just, like, that’s all I could express — just scream. Felt like I tore my lung out.”
Inside the cabin, fire burned through all of Steele’s belongings, including his bullets.
It reached where Steele stored oils, greases and a propane tank.
“There’s explosions going everywhere,” he said, according to the report. “The fire is just a huge, massive grease fire. Every shovel of snow that I throw on it — I’m hysterical trying to put it out and it’s not doing anything.”
He worked until morning trying to put out the fire. When daylight finally came, he started to make a plan. He made an inventory of what he could salvage from the remains.
He said he calculated “two cans a day for 30 days on rations,” noting that some of the cans had popped open in the fire and jars of peanut butter had melted plastic, “so, it tastes like my home, just burning.”
In a shed, he found a pair of old overalls that were “pretty stiff from being so cold in the shed for so long.”
He slept in a snow cave for two nights before creating a tent-like shelter out of tarps and scrap lumber around his wooden stove. He said it was not exactly warm, but “just took the edge off.”
After stamping out an SOS in the snow, Steele added ashes to make it black — something he said he kept doing often “because it would snow and I would have to redo it.”
It took him days, he said, to carve a path to a lake near his homestead where planes could land.
“I thought if someone is going to come and get me, it’s going to be my air service,” he said.
Marsh, the Alaska State Troopers spokesman, called Steele’s survival “stunning.”
“He really had to think fast in a few seconds,” Marsh said. “Really a terrifying prospect, and he just did an amazing job of thinking fast, thinking clearly, acting logically, and, basically, saving his life.”