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Friday, January 09, 2009
You may know them, be related to them or have met them. First responders, doctors, nurses, firemen, law enforcement, family members or friends. They help us when we are at a low point in our lives. They pick us up, dust us off, and help us to carry on. Many of us meet some of those Angels when things go horribly wrong in our lives.
There are other types of Angels. Search & Recovery.
They are the ones called in when a search or a recovery has been deemed too difficult, too deep, or local agencies have exhausted their resources.
Meet Gene and Sandra Ralston.
Photo by Bill Dwyer, wjinc, of Gene & Sandra Ralston onboard
the Kathy G. Photo provided to CMM by Gene & Sandra Ralston.
The Ralston's renamed their vessel after Kathy Garrigan , an Ameri-corps Volunteer from Illinois, who the Ralston's searched for, and recovered in Alaska. Bill Dwyer's article, A year, Garrigan's count blessings explains about that search and the decision to rename the vessel.
At last count, they are responsible for 56 people who have been recovered and returned to their families and friends. Remains that would have continued to rest in their watery graves, except for the skill and dedication of the Ralstons.
They give generously of their time, spending anywhere from 150 to 200 days away from their own home and family to conduct searches and training throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Aruba.
It's not just that they've provided specialized skills to help recover accident, drowning or homicide victims. Gene & Sandy approach each survey with empathy and compassion for those they are searching for, and for their loved ones who are desperately hoping to bring them home. They've made a lasting impression upon the family, friends, and communities of those they've recovered.
In 2004, Gene & Sandra Ralston were nominated to receive a Special Commendation from the Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards Committee. The awards are generally given for outstanding achievement in swiftwater search and rescue, but also include recognition for other water search and rescue achievement.
Gene & Sandy graciously allowed me to interview them for CMM:
Patsy: How did you both feel when you were informed you were nominated?
Were you able to travel to D.C. to the ceremony?
Gene & Sandy: "It was a great honor to be nominated and even greater honor to be selected. We were unable to attend the award ceremony because we were conducting a search for a missing person."
Patsy: How would you describe, or give a name to what you do?
Gene: "We perform underwater search and recovery for anything underwater. We primarily search for missing people, but also search for vehicles, boats and aircraft."
Patsy: You've spoken about how, in 1983 you recovered a drowning victim and ever since have volunteered your services. Would you tell us more about that?
Gene: "We were building a small whitewater jet boat in the 1980's. It was especially designed for boating shallow water as well as white water rivers. In March, 1983, I was asked to help search for a missing woman in the Boise River. The river was at flood stage and few boats were able to navigate the narrow river. We had to launch our boat down a set of concrete steps because there were no boat ramps in that reach of the river.
The woman had gone missing late the night before and we started a visual search along the river banks. We found her lodged against a tree, which had been undercut by the current and had fallen into the river. Her family's expressions of gratitude were overwhelming.
A week later we were asked to search for a two year old boy who had gone missing from his front yard. Authorities thought he may have wandered to, and fallen into the river near his home. We did not find him and he is still missing today."
Patsy: How do you usually get involved in a case? Is it the family or Law Enforcement, (or both) or some other organizations that contact you?
Gene & Sandy: "Most often we are contacted by the family or a close friend of the family of the missing person. Occasionally a law enforcement agency or search and rescue group will contact us early on in an incident, but usually we are asked to help long after others have given up searching."
Patsy: If a person or a family needs the type of services you provide, what agency or person would you recommend they start with in their own area?
Gene: "Typically we are contacted after all of the local search and rescue organizations have exhausted their resources. We do know a few private people with similar equipment who are able to travel outside their local area to assist others. Unfortunately there are some national organizations that we can not recommend because of our past experiences with them."
Patsy: If a person or family would like to request your services directly, how would they go about doing so?
Gene: "Anyone needing our assistance can contact us directly by phone (208) 362-1303, or by email glralston @ mindspring.com. Since we are a private organization, we do not have to be requested by or through a law enforcement agency."
Patsy: You volunteer the use of your ROV, vessel, and the side scan sonar. What do you require as payment for your services?
Gene: "All we ask for our assistance is that our expenses be reimbursed. This includes our motorhome and boat fuel, and camping fees. Many times a local campground or marina will donate a camping space.
We also ask for a small fee based upon mileage, which partly covers our overhead costs such as insurance, equipment maintenance and repairs. We drive between 20,000 and 30,000 miles each year, so we have considerable upkeep.
Most of our searches cost less than $2000 depending upon the cost per gallon of fuel. A trip to the east coast could cost as much as $5000."
Patsy: What if someone isn't in a position to be able to provide expenses?
Gene: "When a family cannot afford the cost, we give them suggestions for soliciting donations and fund raising, which generally produces more than our expenses.
We have conducted searches at no cost when they are close to home and our expenses are minimal. We do not ask for money up front, and only once have we not been paid as agreed by the requesting party."
Patsy: How do you decide whether to take on a particular search request?
Gene & Sandy: "We attempt to get as much information about the incident as possible to evaluate whether or not we can be of any further assistance in the search.
On two occasions we were able to review side scan images made by others and found three victims, which they had missed. In one case, the local divers were able to recover the victim without our having to go to the scene.
Investigators in the other case refused to believe they had imaged the father and son victims so we had to travel to Ohio to recover them. It has been very rare that we have declined assistance and that is usually because the conditions underwater were not suitable for using side scan or the search area was too large to cover in a reasonable amount of time."
Patsy: When do you know it's time to end a search? How do you go about making that decision?
Gene & Sandy: "We continue a search until we believe we have covered the area as thoroughly as possible with a high probability of detection. Often we expand the search outside the original area until we believe we have covered all of the area the victim could be in.
The decision to end a search does not come lightly. It is made in consultation with the family as well as the responsible legal authority. On a few occasions we have returned to continue searching if new information is discovered or additional witnesses come forward."
Patsy: Do you ever allow family members or friends of the person you are searching for onto the boat during a search? Or during an actual recovery?
Gene & Sandy: "Yes, we have had family members or close family friends onboard when we were searching. We have had family members on board when we first discovered the missing person, but we do not allow them on board during the recovery process. That is not something a family member should experience because it will be a lasting memory that may overshadow better memories. On every occasion that a family member was on board, it was a very positive emotional experience for them as well as for us."
Patsy: It's difficult for anyone to tell someone that their loved one is deceased, much less to inform them that they've been lost underwater. It must be equally hard to inform a family that they've been found and recovered. Would you explain how you feel when you notify a family that you have located or recovered their loved one?
Gene & Sandy: "It is difficult to explain the feeling. It is a mixture of sadness, relief, and intense satisfaction that we have been able to bring some resolution to terrible tragedy. Families often tell us that no words can possibly express their gratitude for bringing their loved one home."
Patsy: Do any of the families of those you've recovered maintain contact with you?
Gene & Sandy: "Many of the families we help stay in contact with us. The brother of a young Peruvian man we found in a lake in California, calls us just before Christmas every year to let us know how much his family appreciates what we do and to see how we are doing. We often visit families when we travel through their home towns."