Exhausted searchers trudge over mountain
People from all over Oregon wade through deep snow on Pelican Butte in the search for Derrick Engebretson, 8, who has been missing since Saturday
Thursday, December 10 1998
By Gordon Gregory, Correspondent, The Oregonian
ROCKY POINT -- His eyes scan the snow-covered brush. He barely takes in the people searching beside him. Even as he answers questions, he spots another tree, its branches so heavy with snow that they touch the ground.
Robert K. Engebretson searches a portion of Pelican Butte on Wednesday for his 8-year-old son, Derrick, who has been missing since Saturday afternoon.
Robert K. Engebretson gets down on his knees, his snow pants crunching another fresh plot of snow. His gloved hands lift another branch.
Again, there's no sign of his boy. His son. His Derrick.
He gets to his feet.
And he keeps going.
For four days and nights, this father has been searching relentlessly for the 8-year-old son he last saw Saturday afternoon while they and Engebretson's father searched for the perfect Christmas tree.
Engebretson and his father, Robert O. Engebretson, have been virtually inseparable since then, joining with family members and more than 100 volunteer searchers, trudging through calf- to thigh-deep snows, probing and digging for any sign of Derrick.
Father and grandfather work about 10 feet apart, along with a small band of family and friends, searching an area on the southern side of Pelican Butte. Foot by foot, tree by tree, they go uphill for about a mile. Then they find a road, walk back downhill to a starting point and go back. They've been searching sections of the mountains this way until darkness forces them away.
"Kids that grow up out here can cover a lot of ground," Engebretson said. "He could have easily gotten this far. We wanted to search out here away from the search teams so we would not be walking all over each other."
He's working on about 1 ½ hours of sleep. He can't help but think of the temperatures that have plummeted well below freezing every night that Derrick has been gone. It's been as low as 8 degrees at nearby Klamath Falls. Atop the mountain, the temperatures are even lower.
He wrings his hands as his eyes scan the terrain again.
"There are a lot of places he could be hiding in out here," he said, bending down to search another snow-covered tree.
Searchers Wednesday went out in teams of about 20 each, spaced roughly 10 feet apart, working designated sections of the primary search area. By day's end, about half of the roughly 1 ½-square-mile area had been covered by the teams. A U.S. Air Force Reserve helicopter, equipped with a heat-detecting device, was grounded all day Wednesday, first by heavy fog in the Klamath Basin and later by a malfunction.
Searchers used poles or sticks to probe under brush and branches, poking through mounds of snow and digging into any place a small boy could be. But search coordinators said the snow, brush and forest debris were so thick in places that searchers could well miss the boy, even after working very thoroughly.
By nightfall, Klamath County Sheriff Carl Burkhart called off the search, and weary crews returned. The effort will continue today.
No one wants to give up the search, but hopes clearly are fading. Burkhart said searchers will remain on the mountain probably for at least two more days.
"A lot of it will depend on the crews and how tired everybody's getting," he said.
Searchers came from all over the state. Four teen-agers from Gresham drove all night to help out Wednesday. Nicole Hager, 18, organized the trip after seeing news of the search on television. Hager, who had been lost in the woods near Heppner for several hours a year ago, said she was motivated by the thought of the terror Derrick must feel.
"It just ripped my heart out," she said.
For many searchers, the thought of their own children missing in the snow and ice motivated them to join the search.
"I have three of my own. If I lost one, I can't think of what I'd do," said Marty Rodgers of the Klamath County Search and Rescue team.
Mike Wagner, a truck driver from Klamath Falls, put it as succinctly as anyone: "I've just got kids and want to help."
Like most others here, Rodgers has deep sympathy for Derrick's family. But he said it's too painful to think much about what the boy's mother and father must be going through.
"I just kind of keep that off, trying not to think about it so I can do my job," he said.
Family members say the remarkable show of support and help has been a profound comfort. Naomi Davis, whose husband is Derrick's great uncle, said community support at such times is invaluable.
"It's very important knowing people are there," she said. She and her husband, Ed, lost a son 16 months ago when he was struck and killed by a car. Family and friends rallied around them for days to help them survive the initial trauma.
"When it happened to us, you can't explain it; you just want them there all the time," Ed Davis said.
Engebretson understands the sacrifices that so many are making to search for his boy.
"I'm grateful for every person out here," he said. "Everyone here is my best friend right now."
Steven Nehl of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.