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The searchers: Combing the wild places, Valley’s search and rescue teams always keep people in mind
Over lunch at the North Bend Bar & Grill last Friday, Jan. 11 several customers had begun to notice the bright yellow King County Search and Rescue vehicle parked out back, and figured the two men in the corner were part of the effort. So it didn’t take long for the question to come up: Did they find the missing skydiver?
The answer was slow and deliberate. It had to be accurate and legal, and because it was about not just the subject of a cancelled mission, but also about his friends and family.
No, they hadn’t found him during the search mission, which was called off Sunday evening, Jan. 6, but the Guardian 2 helicopter had been in the air around Mount Si, looking for him that morning, in the first good flying weather of the week. That was officially all Glenn Wallace could say.
“We have to think of his family, waiting to hear,” said Wallace, spokesperson for the 600-member search and rescue group that took part in the four-day search for skydiver Kurt Ruppert.
This search, begun within an hour of his unseen jump from a helicopter Thursday, Jan. 3, ended in frustration for KCSAR and the 18 other participating search and rescue groups from surrounding counties. There was neither a rescue (of a missing person) nor a recovery (of remains) at the end of it, just a return to home and routine, which for many includes day jobs.
“We are members of the community, who want to help the sheriff’s office, help the community,” said Wallace.
In other words, the men and women who spent their weekend scouring the mountain in freezing temperatures, high winds and heavy fog, were all volunteers. So are the other counties’ SAR agencies.
“We don’t get paid for this. We provide our own gear, drive our own cars, buy our own equipment,” said Wallace. It’s actually the sheriff’s department that must provide search and rescue services, Wallace noted, but they do so through a long-standing partnership with his group.
“They call us and we show up,” he said, but the sheriff’s department could opt to hire and staff its own search and rescue group.
“If they had to provide a professional search and rescue service, that they paid, our taxes would be a lot higher,” said Ajai Sehgal, a fellow member of KCSAR, in the 4x4 unit — there are eight subdvisions of King County Search and Rescue, including horse and dog units, tracking, climbing, and skiing units, an administrative support team, and a youth-oriented Explorer division, each with its own membership criteria and annual training requirements.
“We don’t decide to go on missions, they page us out,” Wallace said.
They go out surprisingly often, averaging once every three days in King County. Often, they are going to the same places people go to play.
“A lot of times, we get called on the weekends, when people are out here hiking,” said Sehgal.
Once he’s paged, Sehgal says, he follows the protocol for his SAR unit (each unit has its own specific process), responding if he can come, and in what capacity, with his estimated time of arrival. Then he goes through his checklist, preparing his vehicle, making sure it’s fueled up, and then fueling himself up, since he might be headed somewhere far from gas stations and hot meals for the next 18 hours.
“It’s a slow, calm process,” he said. “We’re moving fast, but we’re not running red lights.”
Sehgal knows he’s lucky that his job with Groupon is flexible, allowing him to respond to calls whenever he can. Wallace, who joined Search and Rescue with Sehgal about two years ago, added that some calls are more compelling to him, personally.
“For instance, if there’s a child missing, …. We barely speak to our families, and we’re out the door,” Wallace said.
Both of them remember their efforts in the 2011 search for 2-year-old Bellevue boy Sky Metalwala. It went on for six days.
That search was part of the less well-known services provided by King County Search and Rescue, finding fragile subjects – children, developmentally disabled people, people with medical conditions, seniors – who aren’t where they’re expected to be. About 12 percent of their call-outs in 2012 were for these people. These “walk-aways”, as they are called, are treated as seriously as any other subject of a search mission, because they often are just as serious.
The recent disappearance of an 84-year-old Duvall woman who lost her way driving home from a store was considered a walk-away. Both Sehgal and Wallace responded to that call “because it was in our backyard!” said Sehgal, who lives north of Duvall. Wallace lives near Ames Lake.
In this case, the woman was in danger. She’d stopped her car on a dirt road, then left the car, walked about 1,200 feet, and fell. She’d been missing a little over 24 hours when they got the page, and more than 50 searchers responded.
“We found her within hours,” said Sehgal, whose role for this rescue was redirecting searchers to a new command post.
“Ninety minutes,” Wallace, who’d just looked up the incident, corrected him.
“She was lying on the ground, very, very cold, but alive,” Sehgal finished.
Their search capacities extend to things, too. Wallace notes that every single member of the organization is trained in basic crime scene management and evidence handling. It’s a state requirement for certification, and the training is included in the basic six-day course required for all search and rescue volunteers.
“Basically what we do is preserve the chain of evidence,” he said. For example, last year several members were called on to help find a key piece of evidence, a knife that may have been used in an attempted homicide.
Searching for things is less rewarding, but “There’s always a person at the end of a search,” said Wallace. “When it’s a recovery instead of a rescue, there’s the family… when it’s evidence, there’s the victim.”
There’s little they can discuss about the missing skydiver case right now, but that search brought Sehgal surprisingly close to the people at the end. He said during one day of the search, a friend, who turned out to be father of the fiancé of one of the men skydiving with Ruppert, had showed up at the command post to ask how he could help.
“Suddenly I had more than just a passing connection to the victim,” he said.
There’s always a connection, though.
“Everyone’s someone’s son or daughter…. So we take it personally,” he said.
“Helping people is what it’s all about,” Wallace added.