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Rescue pilot: Climber 'just never gave up'

Terry Mercer: " If [Aron Ralston] hadn't helped himself, we would have never found him."

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MOAB, Utah (CNN) -- A rock climber amputated his own arm Thursday, five days after becoming pinned by a boulder, and was rescued while hiking out of the canyon.

CNN anchor Miles O'Brien analyzed the situation using satellite imagery and talked with helicopter pilot Terry Mercer, who assisted with the rescue.

O'BRIEN: This is one of those stories where you constantly ask yourself, what would I do if I was in that predicament. It's a survival story. Imagine you are hiking. Suddenly you fall down a cliff, and a huge boulder falls on top of you, pinning your arm. Well, that's about what happened Saturday in southeastern Utah.

I'm going to highlight that spot. Southeastern Utah, not too far from the Colorado border. Canyonlands National Park.

Let's zoom in. First of all, we'll tell you the nearest major city is Moab, Utah. And as you will plainly see, when we zoom in here, this is kind of rough terrain out here, which makes it of course appealing for mountain bikers and hikers and the like. Well, 27-year-old Aron Ralston decided to go to a place near there, Blue John Canyon.

And this is where, while going into a very narrow part of that canyon, an 800-pound boulder fell on him. ... Let's take a look at Aron. He lived to tell the tale because after a few days of being stuck under this boulder, he realized he wasn't going to be able to break himself free, being all alone. He had run out of water. And he made the decision to cut off his own arm in order to free himself. He wrapped a tourniquet [around his arm] and made his way toward help.

There's a few gaps in the story, I admit, so let's start filling them in. Joining us now ... live from Salt Lake City [is] Terry Mercer, the helicopter pilot who was instrumental in bringing [home] this young man. I think courageous is probably a word we can use, don't you think, Terry?

MERCER: Oh, absolutely. He was a stalwart. He just never gave up.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's start at the beginning. You got the call. You arrived on the scene. Just tell me how it all unfolded.

MERCER: Originally, we looked at his truck and saw very professional equipment. We figured he had probably gone to some of the tougher climbs. So we actually were searching up to the north where the canyon is a little steeper. But as it turned out, after about two hours we worked our way back to the parking lot and we just barely started heading south a little bit, when we saw him walking out with a couple of -- another couple of hikers that were down in the bottom land.

O'BRIEN: All right. ... I'm looking at some satellite imagery in that area. It looks like very rigorous terrain. Was it difficult, first of all, to find him, or was it [that] he just walked into view?

MERCER: Well, if he hadn't helped himself, we would have never found him because where he was pinned, we went back in there and looked at the spot that he was pinned. And it was in such a narrow canyon and the overlap was so bad that we could [have flown] directly over it and we would have never seen him down there.

O'BRIEN: All right. So I assume you've flown a lot of rescue missions in this rigorous terrain over the years. Can you recall one quite like this one?

MERCER: Not at all. The couple that I've had, you know, the person is dehydrated and needs help to walk up to the helicopter, and, you know, they crawl over the helicopter and get in. As we saw him, he was actually upright, walking, pretty strongly. And I even called back and I said, he's looking in good shape. Then as he approached the helicopter, I could see he was covered in blood, and he had his arm slung up. I said, "Wait a minute." I said, "There's a lot of blood here, we might not be bringing him back to the parking lot." As soon as [the deputies] loaded him in, they told me what had happened. They said he's amputated, let's get to the hospital. So we lifted and went straight to Moab.

O'BRIEN: Did he tell you much about his ordeal? I suspect he wasn't doing a lot of talking at that point. What were you able to glean from him?

MERCER: He was in the back with the deputies. But I could hear them talking. He held his arm up. I don't know if it was from the pain or from the dripping. But he held it up in front of his face. And from the front where I was flying, I could just hear him talking to the deputies that were both on either side of him. And he told them that after he ran out of water, he determined that he was going to have to cut his arm off if he had any chance of survival.

O'BRIEN: Unbelievable. And of course, I mean, you must have just been shaking your head, wondering how this could be.

MERCER: You know, I'm up front, and I kept turning around and looking at him, hoping he didn't pass out, because there was so much blood loss. I just didn't want him to pass out on the way to the hospital. When he landed at the hospital, again, he got up and walked right into the emergency room.

O'BRIEN: He walked into the emergency room. Amazing story.

MERCER: He was incredible.

O'BRIEN: Terry Mercer, got to ask the question, what would you do in that situation?

MERCER: You know, I -- as I visited the scene and looked at it, it was very traumatic, but as he walked out, not only -- once he got his arm cut off, he still had to finish down the canyon, and then he had to rappel about 80 feet off a sheer cliff. And I looked at it. And I thought, man, by the time you get to the cliff, you would almost think it's time, you know, just jump and get it over with. But he just stuck with it.

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