RESCUE EFFORTS LACKED EARLY COORDINATION
Posted: 12/15/02 12:08 am
January 10, 1999
RESCUE EFFORTS LACKED EARLY COORDINATION
Summary: The slow response of an official to the disappearance of Derrick Engebretson, 8, divides law enforcement into those who agree with his approach and those who find it disgraceful
As an 8-year-old boy was lost in a mountain snowstorm one night last month, the leader of Klamath County's crack search and rescue team held his troops in abeyance at a restaurant 29 miles from the action.
Detective Bud Wilson monitored the scene from a place called Mollie's, reluctant to call an end to his team's annual Christmas banquet, The Oregonian learned in a review of radio and telephone dispatches taped at the local 9-1-1 center.
Some emergency workers on duty the night of Dec. 5 thought the situation too dire for Wilson to wait: Derrick Engebretson, a Bonanza third-grader, had wandered away on a family Christmas tree hunt in the Winema National Forest. And he was lost in the dark mountains as heavy snow fell.
Wilson, coordinator of Klamath County Search and Rescue, took nearly five hours to put the first of his rescuers -- a two-man tracking team -- on the mountain. While the rest of the team waited, a small band of searchers reached the mountain: five state troopers, three sheriff's deputies and a U.S. Forest Service officer. Derrick's panicked mother, Lori Engebretson, who traveled 60 miles through snow, also arrived well before search and rescue.
The official search that followed would last eight days without finding the boy. Authorities presume him dead somewhere on the mountain.
The Oregonian's review found:
Wilson lacked a clear early picture of the emergency at Rocky Point. He relied on 9-1-1 dispatchers to give him updates, rather than contacting deputies at the scene.
Wilson said the snowstorm was slowing down his efforts. But the storm, though challenging, did not prevent those outside of search and rescue from making the drive to Rocky Point. A standard Klamath Falls police car reached the site.
Wilson failed to quickly notify his volunteers of the emerging problem. He made two unsuccessful attempts to phone his team leaders, but he did not page any of them as they traveled to the Christmas banquet. At one point, Wilson's own pager was inadvertently turned off.
The slow response to the emergency underscores a cold reality in the West: Sending help to someone lost in the mountains can take hours. In Klamath County, for instance, the search and rescue team is an all-volunteer unit coordinated by Wilson, a sheriff's detective who summons the group to emergencies.
The failure of trained searchers to reach Derrick's location sooner has divided the law enforcement community into those who agree with Wilson's cautious approach and those who find it disgraceful.
"At the time we realized we had a small child in the conditions, I think they should have immediately responded," said Colleen Lewis, a 9-1-1 dispatcher who took calls the night Derrick disappeared near Rocky Point. "I'm disappointed that they didn't kick into action immediately and call dogs in immediately and call a helicopter in immediately."
A year ago, Wilson had shut down his volunteers' Christmas banquet to send them on a successful search for a 3-year-old girl missing in northern Klamath County. That clearly was on his mind the night Derrick was lost, 9-1-1 tapes show.
"I'm hoping they can find him without us leaving our party again this year," Wilson told 9-1-1's Lewis as his troops assembled at Mollie's in Klamath Falls to celebrate their 17 successful searches in 1998.
"At that point is when frustration turned into" anger, Lewis said. "Because I was, like, wait a minute. We all have dinners. But this is a 24-hour-type job. If you volunteer for something like this, you expect to be inconvenienced once in a while."
Experts analyze events
Derrick's disappearance quickly became the talk at breakfast tables throughout the region.
Like most high-profile search-and-rescue operations, this one drew its share of criticism, especially from family members who quickly complained that officials sent trained searchers too late. But experts differ widely about the best way to find a little boy lost in a whiteout.
The Oregonian presented a time line of Derrick's search to five mountain rescue experts in Oregon, Washington and Idaho for independent analyses. Most didn't fault Wilson's decision to wait hours before sending his troops. And all but one said they prefer to hold back trained searchers as law officers take a preliminary look.
Some of them opted to issue a statement through the state Sheriff's Association Search and Rescue Advisory Council. "From the information provided by The Oregonian . . . we find the response by Klamath County Sheriff's Office to be reasonable," the statement read.
But Carl Wortley, one of the five experts and the commander of the search-and-rescue team in Boundary County, Idaho, said his 28 years of experience has taught him that getting to the search site immediately -- even before all the facts are known -- is imperative.
"We've made our share of mistakes," Wortley said. "We've learned from our mistakes. But I'm telling you, the best thing in the world is rapid response."
The most important thing, he said, is to get someone from search and rescue to the scene quickly to evaluate the situation and prevent tracks from being trampled. Wortley said he immediately dispatches a four-person search team, then organizes two backup teams.
Wilson conceded that his team responded slowly. He blamed that on problems beyond his control: heavy snow, poor communications equipment, a tiny search-and-rescue budget and the fact that his volunteers were en route to the Christmas banquet.
"I'm not saying we did everything 100 percent right," he said. "We didn't do everything wrong, either.''
Wilson is accustomed to Monday-morning quarterbacking with his searches. But in a defensive moment, he wanted to make one thing clear:
"We didn't lose the kid."
Tree hunt goes awry
On the day he disappeared, Derrick traveled to Rocky Point with his father, Robert Engebretson, and grandfather Bob Engebretson. They pulled into a turnout on West Side Road about 2 p.m. and quickly hiked into the towering ponderosa pines above frozen Upper Klamath Lake.
They carried three $5 permits to cut down three trees in the Winema National Forest.
The Engebretsons climbed into the woods, picking their way up the mountain. Derrick and his grandfather soon found themselves separated from Robert, who walked out of sight. The boy scrambled through the snow, chopping on small green trees with a hatchet and annoying his grandfather by wandering away.
Derrick kept telling his grandfather he wanted to catch up with his dad. Bob Engebretson eventually relented, but he cautioned Derrick to follow his father's footprints in the snow. And the last Bob saw of the boy, Derrick was picking his way through the woods in his father's tracks. The 64-year-old grandfather hiked down the hill toward their truck. He was waiting there when Robert came out of the woods alone about 3 p.m.
"Where's Derrick?" Robert said.
"I thought he was with you," Bob said.
After an hour of frantic searching, Robert flagged down a passing driver, 26-year-old Fred Heins, a casino worker from Chiloquin. Robert told Heins his boy was lost and to call 9-1-1. Heins and his girlfriend hurried to nearby Rocky Point Resort, where he called 9-1-1 at 4:13 p.m.
Lori Engebretson learned that her son was lost when she arrived at her mother's home near Bonanza about 6 p.m. Moments later, she and her brother drove to their aunt's house, where Lori borrowed boots and a coat. From there, they drove toward Klamath Falls to pick up their father's four-wheel-drive. Her brother climbed behind the wheel of the Dodge Ram, stopped for gas, drove over icy roads and made it to Rocky Point by 7:30 p.m. -- 90 minutes ahead of Wilson's first search team.
Back at Mollie's restaurant in Klamath Falls, waitress Diana Rice noted that members of the search-and-rescue team seemed consumed with the actions at Rocky Point. Many pressed cellular phones to their ears.
"They were terribly concerned," she said.
But instead of dispatching his trained volunteers directly to Rocky Point, Wilson sent a two-man advance team and gathered his remaining 17 volunteers at the search-and-rescue compound across town. Many had to drop their families off on the way.
When Lori Engebretson reached Rocky Point, she was shocked by how few people were actually searching for her son. She found one deputy who was stationed at his truck listening to his police radio. An ambulance stood by with the Rocky Point fire chief and an emergency medical technician trainee. Engebretson said she found it tough to get answers from anyone.
"Nobody did anything," she said, adding that some of them ignored her. "So when I got mad and started walking up the hill, one guy finally spoke to me.''
Derrick's parents spent the first night of his disappearance in a pickup parked on West Side Road, peering through steam-covered windows at a road their son would never cross. In the days that followed, hundreds of people trudged up and down the steep hills looking for Derrick. But on Day 8, authorities called off the search.
The BB gun Lori Engebretson had bought Derrick for Christmas now joins about a dozen other gifts in the family's living room. They sit under an artificial tree, waiting for him.
Differences about weather
Critics and supporters of the Rocky Point search remain divided by Wilson's early decisions.
Some dispute that the weather was a serious impediment the first night. Wilson estimated that 18 to 20 inches of snow fell on Rocky Point. But the National Weather Service recorded just 11/2 inches at Klamath Falls Airport, about 30 miles southeast of the search site. And rescue personnel who made it to Rocky Point that night -- Wilson did not -- say it got 5 to 8 inches and the roads were plowed well before the search-and-rescue team got there.
Wilson said communication with his volunteers was hampered because most were driving to Mollie's when he found out about Derrick. But he made only two attempts to reach his team leaders, neither of whom were home.
Critics such as 9-1-1's Lewis said Wilson should have paged his personnel, about a dozen of whom carry pagers. But Wilson said that would have slowed him down while driving to rendezvous with those very people.
At one point that night, after Wilson asked 9-1-1 to page him with updates from Rocky Point, he discovered that he had accidentally turned off his own pager. Wilson said he lacked radio communication because he was driving his personal vehicle and the county does not provide him a hand-held radio for his off-duty hours. Later, the battery in Wilson's cellular phone began to die.
Wilson complained that his critics fail to realize that his is an underfinanced volunteer operation. Klamath County Search and Rescue operates on a budget of about $6,000 a year, he said, much of that coming from donations and sales of hot dogs, hamburgers and nachos at the local air show.
But the Klamath County team just got a windfall. After failing to find Derrick, the group got a $5,000 contribution from an anonymous donor. The money went toward 10 new hand-held radios, Wilson said.
Lori Engebretson holds no malice toward the volunteers who give their time to Klamath County Search and Rescue. But she's critical of the failure by Wilson and Sheriff Carl Burkhart to quickly declare her son's disappearance an emergency.
"I think if they would have (taken) it as a more serious matter and got the people in right away, I believe they would have found him right away," she said. "I'm very angry about it."
Klamath Falls police officer Roy Morrison was on duty that night, monitoring radio traffic about the search. He called in to 9-1-1 to offer equipment. Once off duty, he left his home telephone number if Wilson needed the equipment or help. Morrison said Wilson never called back.
"If they'd put out the effort in the initial hours that they did in the following days, it might have been different," Morrison said. "They just sent up a couple of people because of the Christmas dinner and couldn't be bothered."
Robert Engebretson still searches Rocky Point daily. His family clings to hope that Derrick was somehow abducted, possibly after making his way to a road. But officials say it's far more likely that Derrick succumbed to the elements on the mountain.
"I think that he's right there," Wilson said. "Close."