Four days and nearly 4,000 man-hours into a search and rescue effort, King County officials called off the search for a missing skydiver Sunday evening, Jan. 6.
Sheriff’s spokesperson Sgt. Cindi West made an informal announcement at 6:44 p.m. on Twitter: “Ground search concluded for missing skydiver. Roughly 9 square miles searched. Remaining areas not searchable by ground.”
The missing skydiver is a 29 year-old Lakeland, Fla., man, Kurt Ruppert, who’d been with two friends, taking turns jumping from a helicopter near the west peak of Mount Si. He was reported missing around 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3, by the private pilot after his second jump, when he didn’t return to the landing zone.
The pilot estimated the men were jumping from a height of about 6,500 feet. Mount Si’s highest point is about 4,100 feet, and the west peak near the jump area is about 2,500 feet.
“What we understand (from the friends) is they were jumping out of the helicopter just past that west peak,” West explained. “Once they made it past the peak, they’d deploy their chutes.”
West could not comment on whether the activity was legal, but said that information might come out of the Federal Aviation Administration’s investigation of the pilot.
Neither of Ruppert’s friends at the landing zone saw him jump from the helicopter, nor did they see his chute open.
The search began shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, and a command post was set up at the Mount Si trailhead. The search was called off at nightfall, but resumed at daylight Friday, Saturday and Sunday, each time with no success.
Several factors complicated the search, West said. One was Ruppert’s cell phone signal, which they were able to use, along with the pilot’s flight path data, to narrow the possible jump area down. However, the signal was gone after he jumped.
“We don’t know if he shut the phone off before he jumped out, or if it broke after he jumped out,” West said.
Also, he was wearing a green and brown “squirrel suit,” designed for gliding long distances.
West said they had estimated a preliminary search area on the assumption that Ruppert might have been gliding at up to 60 miles per hour, but changed it after speaking with his friends.
“When they’re in the air with those suits, they’re going 80 or 100 miles an hour,” West said.
The expanded search area was about nine square miles, which 386 volunteers searched extensively, in cold, wet and foggy weather.
King County Search and Rescue posted search and weather updates on Twitter, including this one at 2 p.m. Jan. 5: “Our teams are searching in very cold and wet conditions on the mountain. Getting colder.” and this one at 10:06 a.m. Sunday, “Day 4: efforts shifting north, east from Day 3. Temps 38 at command post (closer to 32 on Mt Si) Some precip on radar north of Mt Si.”
High winds and fog kept search helicopters away for much of the weekend, and that same weather is keeping them away now. West said a storm is forecast, but she hopes to get the helicopters searching again after the weather clears. The search on foot is over, she said, leaving dangerous cliff areas, difficult to reach on foot, which will be searched from the air.
“We extensively searched the areas where we believed there was a high probability for him to be,” she said, “but we got to areas you couldn’t cover.” Searchers also called for Ruppert continually. The lack of a response, along with the freezing nighttime temperatures make it very unlikely that Ruppert is still alive.
Over the four days, the search turned up no trace of Ruppert, West said. “If we’d have found anything, we would have been ecstatic. It would have really made a difference. But there was nothing.”
Ruppert was know