Review: Search For Boy Delayed
Posted: 12/15/02 12:09 am
Review: Search for boy delayed
Variety of issues held team back
January 11, 1999
The Associated Press
KLAMATH FALLS -- As an 8-year-old boy was lost in a mountain snowstorm last month, the leader of Klamath County's search and rescue team held back his troops at a restaurant 29 miles away.
Detective Bud Wilson monitored the scene from a place called Mollie's, 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 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.
He hasn't been seen since and is presumed to have died in the subzero weather.
Experts differ as to whether the cautious approach was appropriate.
Wilson, coordinator of Klamath County Search and Rescue, took nearly five hours to put the first of his rescuers on site. Meanwhile, five state troopers, three sheriff's deputies and a U.S. Forest Service officer reached the mountain.
Derrick's mother, Lori Engebretson, who traveled 60 miles through snow, arrived before search and rescue crews. The official search lasted eight days.
The Oregonian's review found:
Wilson lacked a clear early picture of the emergency. He relied on 9-1-1 dispatchers, not deputies at the scene.
Wilson said the snowstorm hampered efforts.
Wilson failed to quickly notify his volunteers. He tried twice to phone his team leaders, but he did not page them as they traveled to their Christmas banquet.
The Oregonian presented a time line of the search to five mountain rescue experts in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Most didn't fault Wilson's decision.
And all but one said they prefer to hold back trained searchers as law officers take a preliminary look.
Wilson conceded that his team responded slowly.
"I'm not saying we did everything 100 percent right," he said. "We didn't do everything wrong, either."
Derrick traveled to Rocky Point with his father, Robert Engebretson, and grandfather Bob Engebretson. They hiked into the towering ponderosa pines above frozen Upper Klamath Lake. Derrick and his grandfather became separated from Robert, then Derrick said he was going to catch up with his dad.
Wilson sent a two-man advance team as he gathered his remaining 17 volunteers. In the days that followed, hundreds of people joined the search.
But when Lori Engebretson reached Rocky Point, she was shocked by how few people were searching. She found one deputy at his truck listening to his police radio. An ambulance stood by.
She said she found it tough to get answers.
"Nobody did anything," she said. "So when I got mad and started walking up the hill, one guy finally spoke to me."
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 says critics fail to realize that his is an underfinanced volunteer operation. It has a budget of about $6,000 a year, mostly from donations and sales of food at the local air show.
After failing to find Derrick, the group got $5,000 from an anonymous donor. The money went toward 10 new hand-held radios.
At the Engebretson home, the BB gun Derrick's mother had bought for Christmas sits among a dozen other gifts under an artificial tree, waiting for him.
Lori Engebretson holds no malice toward the volunteers. But she's critical of the failure by Wilson and Sheriff Carl Burkhart to quickly declare her son's disappearance an emergency.
Copyright © The Mail Tribune 1998, Medford, Oregon USA