Klamath County Search For Lost Boy Expected To End Today
Posted: 2/22/03 1:44 am
Klamath County search for lost boy expected to end today at nightfall
Friends and relatives plan to continue combing the snow-covered mountains Sunday for 8-year-old Derrick Engebretson
Saturday, December 12 1998
By Gordon Gregory, Correspondent, The Oregonian
ROCKY POINT -- The decision that Derrick Engebretson's family has dreaded for a week came early Friday morning. Klamath County sheriff's officials expect to call off the search at nightfall today because they are convinced the 8-year-old boy is not alive.
The decision only heightened the despair and anger among some family members of the third-grade child lost since Saturday afternoon on a snowy mountain just west of Upper Klamath Lake.
"They're telling me that he's dead, and the search is off," said Derrick's mother, Lori Engebretson. "He's not dead. I'll never believe that my son's dead until I have his body in my arms."
Capt. Roger Pitts of the Klamath County sheriff's department said it is likely the boy exhausted himself trying to find his way through the sudden fierce snowstorm that caught him while he was searching for Christmas trees with his father and grandfather.
Pitts said as often happens when someone is very cold and tired, Derrick might have sought some form of shelter to rest in, become hypothermic and fallen asleep, never to awake.
Snows that have accumulated 2 to 3 feet since his disappearance might simply have covered him. Despite a mammoth search involving hundreds of volunteers as well as the use of tracking dogs and helicopters with heat-sensitive detectors, no trace of the boy has been found.
"I really believe we're walking over that boy," Pitts said.
He added that they are at a loss as to what else they can do or where else they can look.
Family members have been frustrated all week that people who have offered to help in the search were turned away. They insist that if they had used all the searchers who volunteered, they would have found him. The family has conducted its own search of the mountain, separate from the main effort. They hope to enlist the use of hundreds of people in the region to help them in a big push today, Sunday and beyond.
Andy Martisak, manager of the Jeld-Wen plant in Klamath Falls where Derrick's father has worked for 18 years, said volunteers will gather in the plant's parking lot Sunday.
"There's a ton of people who are going to go," he said.
Derrick's father, Robert K. Engebretson, who has searched almost nonstop since Saturday, was finally forced off the mountain Friday morning. His family said he was diagnosed with pneumonia and severe chest muscle strain. He was back up on the mountain by late afternoon.
Besides desperately wanting his son back, his hope is that his family's tragedy might inspire others to realize how precious their children are, as he does Derrick's older brother and sister.
"You never know when the man upstairs will reach down and take them away from you," he said. "Maybe, this will change a few people."
Some of Derrick's family also think the search got off to a slow start.
Dispatch records at the 9-1-1 center in Klamath Falls show that the first missing person call came in at 4:17 p.m. Saturday from a man who had been driving and was flagged down by Derrick's father. Becky Collins of the dispatch center said the man did not have Derrick's name or age and could not give a precise location, so the dispatcher asked him for better information.
At 5:02 p.m., the man called back, giving the location and other details. Search and rescue coordinator Bud Wilson was then paged and contacted the dispatch center at 5:30 p.m. Within 15 minutes, a county deputy and at least two Oregon State Police units were en route.
Collins said the center employees were instructed by the sheriff's department Sunday not to direct volunteers to the scene. She said they were told to take down the callers' names and telephone numbers. She estimated about 100 people have called since Monday.
Search officials, who have overseen the activities of up to almost 200 volunteers a day since Monday, said they had far more offers for help than they could effectively use.
Klamath County Sheriff Carl Burkhart, the target of much of the family's criticism, said they have used far more volunteers than normal. It is vital, he said, that search efforts be well-planned, coordinated and supervised.
Sometimes well-meaning people create a lot of confusion and problems, he said. The county, he noted, is liable if volunteers are injured in the search. He said they have to balance the urgency of the situation with their ability to conduct a safe and effective search.
On Thursday night, the last search team on the mountain happened to come across an elderly man, wet to the skin, who had been looking for Derrick on his own and hadn't made it out by dark. Burkhart said he feared that searchers could become lost.
"We could be back to square one," he said.
Professional searchers say Burkhart and others who coordinate searches are in a tough spot balancing the needs of the family and keeping control of the search.
Irv Wettlaufer knows what it's like to be on both sides. Seven years ago, he volunteered but was turned away from the unsuccessful search for 17-year-old Corey Fay, a Jesuit High School student who became lost and died on Mount Hood.
"They said you had to be certified to search, and I was extremely upset at that because I didn't think it was appropriate what they were doing," he said.
Since then, Wettlaufer and his wife, Joan, formed Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue Inc., which organizes its four dozen trained volunteers for searches under the auspices of Clackamas County.
"The more schooling and training that we did, the more we realized they were right."
Wettlaufer said that's difficult for families to accept when someone they love is lost.
"There is a tremendous amount of emotions; an 8-year-old boy out there, you can imagine," he said. "But it must be methodical, properly equipped, or you have horrific problems, such as the searchers out there with frostbite."
Burkhart, a longtime friend of one of Derrick's grandfathers, said he understands why the family is angry.
"They need to reach out and place blame."
He said he, too, is frustrated by the search's failure. Burkhart said the deck was stacked against them from the beginning. Heavy snows and wind last weekend obscured any tracks Derrick might have left. And he said mechanical problems with the helicopters limited air operations early in the week.
"Everything was against us from the start," he said. "We've done our best."