Wannetta Johnson returns to the Smokies every December to bring the current Park Rangers a red poinsettia, as a symbol of her gratitude for those who pulled her son out of chest deep snow 35 years ago.
Eric Johnson and Randy Laws, both Eagle Scouts, went into the park during Thanksgiving weekend 1974 to hike a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. They were stranded at the Tricorner Knob Shelter along the trail when a storm dumped several feet of snow and whipped up drifts approaching 5 feet. When the boys’ parents discovered the storm had closed the Newfound Gap Road and prevented them from meeting the boys, they turned to park rangers to help find their sons. Three days after they left for their hike they were rescued by a Chinook helicopter crew from Fort Campbell. The crew, along with rangers from the park, were able to hoist the boys into the hovering Chinook and whisk them to safety.
Every December 3 since, Eric Johnson’s parents have visited park headquarters to deliver the finest Poinsettia plant that they could find to thank the rangers for their work. While Eric’s dad, Harry Johnson, has passed away, his mother, Wannetta, continues the practice.
“Even though she recognizes that nobody involved in that 1974 rescue are still here, she still comes to thank the park for saving Eric and, symbolically, for saving hundreds of other lost and injured people since then,” park officials said this week. “Rangers who were here for that rescue felt like it was no big deal, just part of the job. But to Wannetta it was huge.”