Water Search And Rescue rarely involves rescuing a live human being. The Spokane County Water Rescue team’s last live rescue subject was a moose, which they pulled out of Newman Lake this April. More often than not, a person makes it out before help arrives—or falls victim to the water’s surprising weight. Then rescue turns into body recovery, a quest for answers and closure.

IN SEARCH OF PEACE

Avery Blakely was reported missing in Whitman County on a Thursday afternoon in late March. The two-year-old boy’s parents called 9-1-1 when they could not find him in the yard where he had been playing. Deputies, firefighters, volunteers from local towns and two helicopters were called in to help comb the area.

Avery is thought to have fallen into the swollen creek that runs through the family’s yard. In the absence of a local water rescue team, the Whitman County Sheriff’s Department called on the Spokane County Water Rescue team to search Pine Creek. Eight rescue team members immediately left work to respond to the call, making the 40-mile trip to Malden, Washington. The dive team battled a strong current and muddy, debris-filled water for hours that evening, returning to Spokane well after nightfall. Still, the boy had not been found. [He is still missing at press time.]

Water Rescue team members returned to Malden twice more in April, meeting at 7:00am on Saturday mornings to get an early start on the all-day searches. After covering 150 yards east and about three miles west of the home from which the boy went missing, the team suspended the search, hoping to resume looking when the high waters subside. If Avery did fall into the river, the team is his family’s best chance at finding resolution for the uncertainty regarding their loss.

Jim Uttke is one of the divers who spent his April weekends searching for Avery. When asked why he dedicates his talent to the tough, often thankless work of volunteer rescue, he has a ready answer: “I guess it comes back to: if you don’t do it, nobody’s gonna do it.”

The Water Rescue team relies on dedicated, compassionate volunteers for its success. Members find their way to the team through Spokane’s network of water recreation enthusiasts, or as a natural extension of their involvement in land-based search and rescue. Some come equipped with decades of diving experience; others simply come willing to learn.

RESPECT YOUR SURROUNDINGS

Those new to river sports often underestimate the water’s power and do not take proper precautions before going out, says Northwest Whitewater Association president Paul Delaney, who notes growing enthusiasm for water sports in Spokane. The Water Rescue team seldom receives calls to assist experienced rafters, canoers and kayakers.

A lifelong river junkie who spent his childhood poking around the banks of Riverside State Park, Delaney is the Spokane’s biggest fan. He is also the first to warn about its risks. Inadequate safety knowledge and inappropriate equipment often contribute to fatal swift-water mishaps, he says. His conviction for river safety is an outgrowth of lessons learned the hard way.

One day in a 1982 paddle rafting class, he found himself assigned captain of his 5-person paddle boat. Under a bridge towered a standing wave, which he tried to instruct his crew to paddle through. But the group was inexperienced and uncooperative, and before he knew it, his boat stood up on end and his four crewmembers shot out over his head into the rapid. Now he was alone in a boat to confront hundreds of pounds of water. Delaney and his friends managed to come out of the river intact, but the scare gave him new reverence for its power.

Two of the Spokane River’s best known rapids, The Bowl and Pitcher and the Devil’s Toenail, are thrilling adventures for those who are prepared to negotiate their ever-shifting challenges. But for the ill-prepared boater, their strength can be fatal. “You have to know where to run them and you have to know where not to run them,” says Delaney, and the situation varies with changing water levels. Delaney gushes with excitement for the oversized creek flowing through his parents’ backyard. “It’s been said that [the Spokane River] is the most unique urban river in the world,” he says, and offers simple wisdom for safely enjoying it: “You have to have respect for your
surroundings.”

When a body is found, it almost always belongs to someone who was not wearing a life jacket, says Delaney. The Water Rescue team has reams of stories about boaters who keep life jackets at their feet, expecting to have time to put one on if caught in a dangerous situation. “Last year there was a canoer,” recounts Water Rescue diver Darren Prouty, “An 18-year-old kid. We found his life jacket, we found his canoe. It was a month later that we found him.”

In May of 2008, the weight rushing by a given point in the Spokane River each second was equivalent to about 120 elephants, to use an illustration Delaney shares as if it were the river’s gospel. Caught underneath all that weight, it is too late to put on a life jacket—or call for help.

Prouty confesses he never wore a life jacket before joining the Water Rescue team. Now, having witnessed others’ devastating consequences resulting from that choice, he never goes on the water without one on.

UNCOVERING THE EVIDENCE

Although the river may seem like a safe escape for those in trouble with the law, most fugitives who flee on the water do not get very far. “A lot of criminals trying to run from the police downtown jump into the river to get away,” says Prouty. “They get away. We’ll find [their bodies] in snags down in [Plese] Flats.”

Criminal evidence finds its way to the bottom of the river, too, usually around Downtown Spokane. An alleged gang member accused of violent crimes tossed his sawed-off shotgun into the river along with all his ammunition. Police investigators called the Spokane County Water Rescue dive team to help recover the evidence.

“To make [the charges] stick, I guess, they wanted all they could get on him,” says Prouty. Tumbling like rag dolls in the strong currents, Prouty and his dive partner clung to the river floor and embarked on the tedious task of scanning every inch of its surface. The pair painstakingly packaged each piece of evidence underwater to prevent oxygen from damaging potential fingerprints. After several long stretches underwater, they had all they could get: the gun and every shotgun shell that had been dropped into the water.

In March of 2006, Prouty responded to his first call for a body recovery. Two young men had murdered a 45-year-old acquaintance over a dispute and dumped his body at Boulder Beach in the Spokane River. Prouty was the first to discover the body, a sight no amount of training could have prepared him for. “You can see the white and it materializes into a person,” he says. The body was bloated almost beyond
recognition.

A suspect in the case was arrested later that day. “Nightmarish” underwater video footage taken by the Water Rescue team was presented as evidence in the trial that eventually led to the murderers’ conviction, says Prouty.

DON’T PANIC!

Learning to cope with grim scenes like Prouty’s body discovery is essential to success as a search and rescue diver. Panicking can be dangerous so deep in the water, both to the diver and her partner. “There are not a lot of people you should ever send down into the water to do something if there’s any possibility of them panicking.”

Witnessing a recovered body deeply disturbs some new team members who do not know what to expect. Three years after seeing that body, Prouty still recalls every emotion and detail from the scene. Even those who work or volunteer in situations where they often confront death—Uttke works in the county medical examiner’s office and another team member volunteers on a ski patrol team during the winter—bodies decay differently underwater than they do on land.

Many new volunteers leave the team after witnessing their first water-worn corpse, says Nelson, and the team works to offer emotional support after a jarring first experience. Even after years on the team, Uttke says he often dreads what he will see in the water. “The things that you think are twenty times worse than what’s actually down there,” he says. “But don’t get me wrong; I’m still down there going, ‘This is gonna suck.’”

DON’T FEAR THE REAPER

Uttke responded to a call at Mission Street near the Avista Utility headquarters when he was new on the team. The task was recovering a vehicle from a drunk driving accident.

“We get out there and the river’s just warping,” he recounts. In order to pull out the car, the divers had to navigate through a mess of trees growing in the water—“just the most insane place to go through.” Finally reaching the sunken vehicle, he hooked it up to the strap with which it would be hauled out.

Mission accomplished, he turned to make his way through the branches and back to the shore. But Uttke’s partner became entangled in the branches underwater and was attempting to wrestle himself free. Struggling in low visibility against the water’s overwhelming force, he collided with Uttke, knocking the oxygen regulator out of his mouth and dislodging his mask. Uttke made a beeline for the surface to get air, with one fin lost and his mask filling with water fast.

Exhausted and traumatized once out of the water, he retreated into his car to collect his wits. “There ain’t no way I’m going back in that damn water,” he remembers deciding. “I’m like ‘This is crap. I’m just gonna quit. I’m never gonna show up again.”

But perhaps the decision was too rash. He turned his keys and the radio came on, blasting him with Blue Oyster Cult lyrics (and cowbell) that he took as a sign: “Seasons don’t fear the reaper / Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain / we can be like they are / come on baby, don’t fear the reaper.”

A LIFESTYLE CHOICE

As volunteer work goes, water search and rescue is a far cry from serving dinner at a soup kitchen. Support from family and employers is essential to succeeding as a search and rescue volunteer, given the time commitment, financial cost and personal risk involved. “When it comes to these types of teams, whether it’s the ground search and rescue or the water rescue, it’s kind of a lifestyle choice,” says Nelson. Volunteers’ daily routine, including work, sleep and social life, are liable to being interrupted by calls for assistance at
any time.

Particularly in the river, tasks assigned to the Water Rescue team can be extremely risky. “We don’t get to select when and where we dive; the victims do,” says Uttke, who considers entrapment, usually entanglement in debris, among the greatest threats to rescue diver safety. The team rattles off a bizarre list of items they commonly encounter in the water. Rebar, chunks of concrete, motor vehicles, barbed wire and trees top the list of items no diver wants to befriend in the river on a 2:00am search for a missing person. Nelson says he hears about at least one Water Rescue volunteers who dies in this line of work each year.

Most of the team’s current divers took recreational diving seriously long before volunteering, says Nelson, so they had already invested the money in the necessary equipment. Scuba diving gear can run anywhere from $1,500-$6,000. In addition to benefiting from already having the necessary gear, local divers and rafters are toughened up by outdoor recreation experience in the Northwest. “That doesn’t mean they fly to Mexico and go diving,” says Nelson, “It means they dive in this crummy cold water we have here.”

Although experience helps, it is certainly not required. Those interested in joining the Water Rescue team as divers, surface or ice rescuers must become certified in their areas of interest. Various dive schools in Spokane offer beginner diving courses, which cost around $200 and last about five weeks. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the county’s council of search and rescue teams, provides ice rescue and swiftwater rescue training free of charge for Water Rescue team members. The Sheriff’s Department also provides CPR, blood-borne pathogen, first-aid and helicopter training for search and rescue volunteers.

Nelson emphasizes that not all volunteers need to specialize in swiftwater, dive or ice rescue. Equally important to the success of any rescue or recovery operation are shore support volunteers. Their role is to tend the lines divers use for communication, judging their location in the water and towing recovered objects from the water. All volunteers are trained to perform this vital function and some choose to specialize in this area, known as shore support, rather than pursuing any certification.

NOT A SPORT

Spokane Water Rescue offers exciting opportunities to learn and contribute to the community. Water Rescue is a big investment in training sessions and classroom time with no promise for action-packed return, so those seeking an adrenaline rush should pursue adventure elsewhere. Recounting the experiences that have impacted them most as Water Rescue volunteers, the crew makes it clear this is not a sport to them. Their task is to help save lives, recover valuable evidence and help find answers for families seeking closure concerning lost loved ones.

The team tells about many volunteers who have lost interest during years where the need for Water Rescue assistance is scant. “Sometimes we’ll go a year or two and really not have a call-out, and then some years we’ll have seven in a season,” says Prouty. According to Nelson, all the search and rescue teams combined responded to 111 calls in 2008. He estimates an average of three calls from neighboring areas like Whitman County each year.

Volunteer officers organize monthly meetings and training, raise funding for equipment and get the team involved in community events like the Shriners’ duck races and the annual Spokane River Cleanup. Spokane Water Rescue is currently chaired by Elizabeth “Turtle” Nelson, who is also a certified search and rescue diver. The team welcomes volunteers who wish only to help with administrative tasks, says Deputy Wade Nelson.
As the Spokane County Search and Rescue Coordinator, Deputy Nelson oversees and advocates for the county’s entire network of search and rescue teams. Comprised of 350 volunteer members, the Search and Rescue Council’s 12 teams include ATV, snowmobile, mountaineer and ground teams, with whom the Water Rescue team shares rescue equipment and training material.

$25,000 in grants will soon allow the Search and Rescue Council to purchase first aid equipment, ice rescue equipment, pagers, sheltering equipment for searches in inclement weather, and up to 30 GPS devices, he says. In early 2009, the Sheriff’s Department assigned three Emergency Operations Deputies to the Search and Rescue Council to provide volunteers additional support.

The team members shared their stories inside a fogged-up diner on Silver Lake, defrosting over burgers and coffee following a snowy ice rescue training early one Saturday morning. Their eyes reflected sorrow as they recounted stories of loss and zeal for always improving the indispensable service they provide.

“If [a prospective volunteer is] a thrill seeker looking for a fun ride, this isn’t where they need to be,” says Nelson. “We’re really looking for professional, dedicated, community-oriented volunteers.”

Spokane County Search and Rescue is always looking for volunteers and sponsors. Current sponsord include: Avista, Spokane Yacht Club, Knight Construction/EZ Dock, Precision Propeller, Elephant Boys, Sure Fit, Aspen Sound, Trudeaus, Cabelas, Atlantis Aquatic,
Fesco Fleet & Marine, Roosevelt Recreation, Scuba Center, and Les Schwabb on Francis. They are looking for equipment donations and funds. For more information contact Darren Prouty at:precisionprop@comcast.net.