ABC27 Investigates: Trio rescued from Lebanon County woods hit with hefty bill

Hampden Township Police have a drug collection box.

MOUNT GRETNA, Pa. (WHTM) – It was Thanksgiving Day 2016 when a group of three made the trip from their home state of New Jersey.

“My husband and my sister came with me,” Julia Jen said.

The group traveled to the park at Governor Dick in Mt. Gretna, Lebanon County. They started their adventure in the woods behind the nature center.

“We came in here with the intention of going bouldering, have a good time,” Julia said. “We travel quite a bit to go climbing so this wasn’t new for us.”

The day took a turn when it was time to pack up and head back to the car.

“There was a lot of foliage on the ground so it was kind of hard to discern where did we come in from. We ended up going into these short trails that were dead ends and then we would come back out and lose our bearings,” Julia said.

“The way I went about it was, I am going to figure it out,” Geo Progulakis, Julia’s husband, said.

“The evening was coming fast and by like 5:30 we almost couldn’t see,” Julia said.

They had their phones, so the group decided to use the GPS coordinates on the nature center’s website to help them get back to the parking lot.

“We started circling, and that’s when I started getting feelings of ‘I am not sure these coordinates are correct because at this point I have seen this tree before,'” Alina Jen said.

“Once we got to the pinpoint location on our phone we were literally in the middle of the forest and it was nighttime,” Geo said.

Four hours had passed, it was getting colder and starting to drizzle. Although the group had water, food and layers they decided it was time for a different plan.

“At that point, I am like, ‘why don’t we just call 911?'” Julia said.

“We were thinking they would give us coordinates, and we would just find our way out,” Alina said.

“I think the coordinates they had were the same that we had,” Geo said.

They were told to stay where they were and the Mt. Gretna Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to rescue them. After more than an hour, the volunteers found them and led them out of the woods.

The seven-hour ordeal was finally over.

“We thanked them profusely,” Alina said.

“We were so grateful and relieved,” Julia said. “Then a month later we get a bill.”

Those three bills, for $500.00 each, from PA Fire Recovery Service, billed them on behalf of the Mt. Gretna Volunteer Fire Department. The total due was $1,500.

“We were looking at it and we were like, ‘what are they billing us for?'” Julia said.

“It said the generator, the light, the glow sticks and the water,” Alina said.

The fire department used a generator to run a light in the nature center parking lot during the rescue.

“I feel that the sum of money they are asking for is something I cannot afford and I feel, like, helpless,” Geo said.

The fire company used Mt. Gretna Borough ordinance 202 20-7 to bill the group. It allows the fire company to collect fees for incidents involving insurance reimbursements, to help recover costs for hazardous abatement materials, and rescues involving “vehicular accidents.”

“Nothing about search and rescue, so they may be violating the law,” Julia said.

“I’m sure there was a misunderstanding,” Geo said.

They reached out to PA Fire Recovery Service several times.

Five months later, and they still received no answers.

“I would definitely consider and give donations because this is something I feel grateful for and they should be compensated, but in the right way,” Alina said.

In Your Corner Reporter Kendra Nichols reached out to the Mt. Gretna Volunteer Fire Company for answers and spoke to Joseph Shay, Mt. Gretna Mayor and President of the Mt. Gretna Fire Company.

“The fire chief thought it was OK to bill them since they were from out of town. He was doing his best to recover costs. It was a mistake. We are fixing it,” Shay said.

Shay says the volunteer fire department runs primarily on donations and struggles to raise funds.

Two days after Shay spoke with the ABC27 Investigators, Julia received an email from PA Fire Recovery Service stating, “We were contacted by Mt. Gretna Fire Department today in regard to the above-referenced incident. They have requested that we discontinue billing all parties involved. We have closed these files out in our system.”

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