While we were wrapping up a week-long search in Arkansas to help locate Stacey Hernandez, I began receiving messages about four-year-old Angela, whose family reported her missing on Monday near the Wisconsin River. Then I received a call from Angela’s mother asking if we could help her find her daughter. There was no way I could turn her down. I immediately began making plans to head down in order to assist the Lone Rock residents in their search for Angela, who was last seen playing on the riverbank. Scott was not able to make this journey because he needed to return to work. After the twelve-hour drive from Arkansas and a few hours of sleep, I left for Gotham, WI, where I was met by numerous volunteers. Again, the rain was off and on all day, limiting the amount of time we were able to run the sonar equipment.
On day two, we deployed the ROV in the area of interest. I was told that with the recent rain, the water level had already gone up about 3 feet from the time of Angela’s disappearance. I was in an area where visibility is normally 1 to 2 feet, but today visibility was hovered at 0. I suited up with the back-up divers from the local fire department, and unfortunately we did not have success locating the little girl. Tonight I am reviewing sonar images, and tomorrow we will head back out to the river to continue the search in hopes of locating Angela in an attempt to bring a bit of comfort to a family in desperate need of closure during a tragic time.
On Tuesday, April 7th, we found Stacey and were able to bring her home. Our seven-day search on Beaver Lake brought big challenges. We experienced mechanical problems, along with the poor weather conditions that resulted in delays. The lake is man made and has standing trees everywhere beneath the surface. It is a very large lake, and we had areas as deep as 150 feet. Stacey’s last known location was very vague due to the fact that all the survivors fell into 50-degree water approximately a half mile from either shore. A storm rolled in fast, created waves and intensified the current, making it difficult for the boaters to battle.
First I would like to extend my sincerest condolences to Stacy’s family and friends, especially her young son. I would like to thank Scott Moldenhauer for dropping everything and missing work to help me make this 12 hour journey to Arkansas. I am grateful for the help of local resident Brian Slone for helping us on the boat. I would also like to thank Liseth, a friend of Stacey’s family, who arranged our lodging at Embassy Suites, where she works. Special thanks to Mike of Prairie Creek Marina for the use of the pontoon and finally to the Benton County Dive Team. Finally, a very special thanks to 12-year-old Nicholas, one of the survivors that provided a key piece of the puzzle that led us to the right area.
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On March 30th I received a call from a family member of Stacey Hernandez. On March 24th Stacey went missing while canoeing with her family on Beaver Lake, Rogers Arkansas. The local authorities had just called off their water search after nearly a week of searching.
Scott and I packed up for the 12 hour road trip south and arrived the late afternoon of March 31. The family found us a pontoon boat for us to operate from.
April 1 was spent collecting several hours of images. The search area is pretty large. This is a manmade lake and has mountain and valleys with trees everywhere. This is not going to be an easy area to find an object.
Today’s search was short due to the holiday. Because of the colder temps we were able to get back to the search site by truck and made for a shorter trip. Today’s search provided no new clues.
This being my last day and leaving without the closure I wanted to provide is tough to swallow. Having to fly into such a remote location and not able to bring my ROV would have made a big difference. When I come into these type of search’s I come in to help the local authorities to bring them more technology. Sometimes I may not agree with everything but I do have to respect their decisions and beliefs.
Bethel SAR group are an amazing group of individuals. They are excited about the new technology I have shown them and with the support that they have here I believe that they will someday have the equipment that they so desperately need.
The warming fire
Today we got an early start and headed to the local airport. Ravn Airline graciously donated two trips to fly 7 of us and all my sonar equipment to Kwethluk. This is the smallest plan I have been in yet. The bad part was that I was flying in the dark I could not see the beautiful landscape. We then went to the Kwethluk Safety Building and met with Max Olick. He is an unarmed police officer, fire chief and EMT for the village for 30 years. He has been ahead of the operation once we get to the search site. He and the rest of his villagers have been very good to me. We then loaded up our gear on snowmobiles, ATV’s and sleds for the 30 minute ride. I jumped on with Perry and soon found that our sled had no rods on the skies making it for an interesting ride because all the snow is gone and everything is glare ice. I have never been a good back seat driver but after the second time down the ditch and back over into the other side I started to gain some confidence in Perry’s driving. The ones behind us got a charge out of this.
Once on site they got started on expanding the search area down river. I have had my targets on my sonar each day and feel that they have been moved around by the dragging operation. We set up my office in the back of the Argo 8X8 machine which worked out really well. We soon found the first target but not the second. This is when we decided to do something that I believe has never been done for body recovery. I had called L-3 Klein, manufacture of my sonar and talked to the head engineer about my under the ice search. He had told me about the military flipping the sonar upside down to get images of the underside of ships. So before I left WI I ask Bob Carpenter who is one of Bruce’s Legacy’s volunteers to make me a bracket that would allow us to fly my 4′ long torpedo style sonar under the ice. This would allow us to view anything that was laying just under the ice shelf. After a few passes and some adjustments we got an amazing image. Now this was late into the day and the weather was changing fast. The snow started to fall and it was getting dark. The days here are way too sort here. It is not light until 10 am and is dark at 5 pm. We once again had to leave.
While packing upthere was some talk about not coming back out because of being New Years Day. I was pretty sick about this and asked if some of the locals were coming back. They said they would and would be will to help me. They offered a place for me to stay at the village. I did have a couple of the young guys from the Bethel SAR that have been my direct helpers that said that they would as well. I did decide to travel back to Bethel with the SAR team where we ate and had our debriefing. A lot of the team members that could not go for the day search would always come for the debriefing to find out about the days events. Once I showed them the sonar image from today and talked about some ideas that we could try I sparked a bunch of interest. I believe we will have a good crew for our New Years Day search.
These guys are into the 20th day of this search. They are plan wore out. There is so much work put into this kind of remote search. Their families haven’t seem much of them through this. With the important holidays I hear about them having kids home from far way schools and these guys have not been home much. This has been tough on them all.
Kwethluk Public Safety building
Our ride to Kwethluk
My new buddy Max
Day four search was canceled due to the unsafe travel conditions. The 22 mile ice road is covered with a lot of water. I never knew that there is no roadway to connect many of the city and villages. There only ground transportation route is by the river system. In the summer it is by boat and winter it is by vehicles on the ice. Supplies are brought in on the river or flown in. This explains the high prices for everything here. All the villages have an air strip for travel.
I have spent most of my time traveling with retired Trooper/tour guide Perry Barr. He has been sharing his Alaskan heritage and I’m learning so much about a state that I only heard of its beautiful landscape. He invited in his home, introduced his family and shared so many keep sakes with us.
We dropped Sonia off to the airport for her flight home. Sonia had offered to come up from Canada to help out in our search. She has her own Medical business with extensive experience in wildness survival. She paid her own way to help out Bruce’s Legacy in our quest to give closure to these people involved. A big Thank You and it was a pleasure to have her here.
Another local SAR member that goes by Mano stopped by this morning. He is an airplane mechanic for the State Forestry Dept and helped arrange for us to bunk up at their facility. He showed me pictures of his family and shared how he get his firewood to heat his home. They travel by boat to an area where they cut dead dry trees (they float better). Leaves them in long lengths and lays them in the water to form a barge around his boat. He then lays smaller trees crossways and nails them with long spikes to hold everything together. He is then able to maneuver this down the river. He was also proud to say that hunting and collecting firewood was a family event. With three daughters and one just married he is hoping that his next two sons in law are a strong as his first. His knowledge has been so beneficial to my success each day we have ran into the hurdles out at the site. He is an amazing man!
Just when I was worried that I was not going to get out on the site, the Bethel SAR reached out to the Alaska State Troopers to fly a few of us and my equipment to the nearest village. Then we will be taking snowmobiles to the site.
The rivers are our worst areas to conduct underwater searches. There is so much debris from years of falling trees in the water. These make for snag areas and difficult areas to search. Then you have the current that can move items down river. Then add near 0 visibility to this and try to locate and object. Now throw a shelf of ice over all that and add cold, rain, snow and wind.
I hope tomorrow will be the day!
I just found out that they have given me the nick name “The Wizard of Oz” as I travel around in my office.
We were told that it was tradition, your first time on the river you need to rub snow on the top of your head for safe travels on the ice road. All were standing around and a with a lot of laughs. I then got the feeling I had been had…
The day starts with a briefing at the Bethel SAR
The day starts with a home cooked meal at the SAR Headquarters followed with a briefing. With all the rain from overnight and yesterday made for a skating rink everywhere. Loading gear I found that I don’t bounce as well as I used to. They were able to come up with an ice rescue sled so I could set up my office on it and get back into the area that I was the first day. Ice has been deteriorating with the warm temp and rain. The 22 mile ice road trip is now like a flooded road with water as deep as 6″ and took much longer to get out to search site. Today is the 17th day and it is taking a toll on the SAR team and volunteers. Many have been taking off of work with some getting sick I hear.
I set up my gear on a device that is normally used in thin ice rescues. We have one on our team back home and have recently set that one up for this type of search but have not had the chance to try it out yet. We were lucky to have the local fire department loan us theirs for the day making it much safer to get back into the area of interest.
I have not posted a lot of details out of respect for the families and all involved. But the word is out and feel I can give a bit more. We did locate three possible targets on day one. They have put drop cameras to verify the two targets. Now what you may not understand is the difficulties that they are challenged with. This river has created two to four feet of slush under the ice. I have made over a 100 dives under the ice in lakes and rivers and have never encountered this. This slush makes it difficult to work with drop cameras and the drag bar method that they are using. These people run fish nets under the ice and are accustomed to working with lines and such under the ice. I have learned a great deal from all of this. I’m confident that they will be successful in their mission. You have to understand that this has to be one the toughest type of recovery operation one could encounter.
The support I have received from everyone here and back home is exactly why I keep doing this. The Alaska State Troopers have graciously allowed me to stay longer by pushing back my flight so I can see this through.
The ice road now has 2-6″ of water on it
One of the SAR team heading out on their ATV
Villager working with the drop camera
My office for day three with the team looking over my sonar data
Bethel’s SAR member Mark pulling me over the ice.
I kneel on this looking down onto the computer screen. This worked out very well.
Reviewed the data from day 1 search provided some areas of interest. We met at the Bethel SAR Headquarters with a home cooked meal and a briefing. Headed out to the search site which take close to an hour on the ice road. We have been so fortunate to have Perry (a recently retired Alaska State Trooper) transport our equipment. I’m learning a great deal about the local culture and find this an amazing area to live. Upon arrival of the search site and meat up with more villagers, each day begins with a briefing followed by a prayer. I have had many of the local searchers jump into the trailer (my ice office) to view the images as we are being pulled along the top of the ice.
Today we had a man bring out a four wheeler to plow off the snow and this provided a much smoother surface, allowing for much clearer images. We were able to work a much bigger area. The bad part was the ice near the open water where I needed to be is becoming unsafe because of the rain and warming temperature. With each hurdle we have had here these guys keep coming up with ways around them and make it happen for me. Their determination to find these members of their community are truly amazing.
The wind blew and it rained most of the day and well into the night. The ice road on the way back to Bethel is now covered with water. Tomorrow search brings yet more hurdles from the weather. The forecast for day three is for more rain.
For more info you can check out http://kusko.net/bsar/
My ice office being pulled by a new track machine.
I believe these guys will cut a slot all the way to the Behring Sea if I asked them too.
Showing some of the local SAR team what I see on the sonar
Started off with a home made breakfast served at the Bethel SAR followed by a briefing. Traveled 22 miles down river on the ice road to the search site. Met by the local villagers that were already working on clearing ice. I would guess we had around 100 people throughout the day helping. We where even visited by the local State Representative and his wife that also was involved in the approval for our travel reimbursement. Now I don’t believe we would see that in our lower 48. Had many challenges to work through. They had to clear more ice off for us to use the trailer that we used for keeping computer equipment warm. We hung the sonar off the back of trailer down through the ice to be towed by a four-wheeler 3-5 mph. It was to bumpy to get good images and them one of the villagers suggested the large sleds they had they put under the tires which worked out very well. As we ran into other hurdles trough out the day the locals always came up with a way to fix it. It was truly an honor to work with these people as we jumped many hurdles today. We worked into the dark then packed up for the 45 minute ice road trip back to Bethel. When we arrived back at the headquarters they had a potluck supper laid out with many dishes. I happen to like fish so I fit in well and enjoyed. I will review what we have for images tonight and make a plan for tomorrows search.
Ice road to search site
Search Site, ariel photo
Bob’s ice sled put to the challange
Bob’s ice sled at work
Sonia Clark from Canada and Alaska State Trooper Wood. He was my point of contact to make this happen.
My office on wheels
The sonar off the back and down through the ice to be towed near the bottom.
Clearing ice for the sonar
Below is the article from the Bethel Sar website about a search near Kwethluk on theKuskoquak Slough. So far there have been no new developments and Keith is packed and ready to go north, flying out Friday. Keith is anxious to lend a helping hand and share some knowledge about working searches on the ice. It’s very different from using the sonar on open water. A tremendous amount of more planning, assistance and equipment are involved to create clear, sonar images.
Day 11 started with rain and snow mixed and a new hope for the recovery of those still lost. As about 35 people worked tirelessly around auger holes and new trenches strung along the ice, the feeling was not of despair, but of optimism and a knowledge of traditional beliefs that soon..soon…. both who have been missing will be brought to their families. But also knowing that the belief of wishing for something to intently, may not occur. And realizing if one talks of anything else besides the current mission, success is more likely. All part of a belief long ingrained in cultural understanding.
Day 11 ended without new developments and no new clues….
The Kwethluk crew surrounding a large hole in the ice today talked of returning on Christmas Day and the need to continue on and of upcoming techniques that they can try. Places they may have missed or of people that may have not searched in specific areas. Talk of the upcoming new techniques with the sonar machine expected to arrive the day after Christmas was discussed with a desire to bring closure. Many also spoke of the volunteers who have been helping and the need for more people to assist to complete the trenches needed for the sonar, and the thankfulness of the food that supporters have been providing.
The Christmas season is here and the celebration of a new beginning is upon us all. We pray for all in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta to be safe as they travel to visit families and friends. We, the BSAR family wish to remind everyone traveling to always file a travel plan with friends, relatives and or your local VPSO or law enforcement. We also wish everyone the joys of Christmas, the happiness of families, and the kinship we all share.