The Search and Rescue office sits in the basement of the Union County Sheriff’s Office building. It was quiet on Tuesday morning with only Bob Nelson and Moneta Woollard there, but the place can get busy when a missing person is reported.
Once a call comes into dispatch, UCSO Capt. Craig Ward and UCSO Sgt. Ken Woodward assess the information to find out whether Search and Rescue, which operates under the Sheriff’s Office, is needed.
“We look at the totality of the circumstances and get the facts,” Ward said. “A lot of times I’ll bounce the scenario off Bob.”
Nelson helped search for a missing teenager in the Mt. Hood area 25 years ago and has been a Search and Rescue volunteer ever since.
“It’s kind of fun,” Nelson said.
Woollard jokingly blamed Nelson for becoming a volunteer, but admitted, like Nelson, she does it to give back to the community.
“We enjoy it more when we find (the lost people) and take them home,” Woollard added.
The completely volunteer-run group has limited resources and does not receive financial help from local municipalities. Their budget comes out of their own pockets and through donations. However, when a call comes in, the volunteers are ready to respond.
The first step the SAR team takes when a person is reported missing is speaking to the family. While law enforcement also interviews the family, the SAR team seeks different information than the officers.
“We ask about the person’s medical (history), their background and education,” Nelson said. “When we interview the family, sometimes we get different answers than the cops received.”
Nelson said some people are more comfortable talking to a volunteer than to a uniformed officer.
Nelson and Woollard also said they use a book called “Lost Person Behavior,” a compilation of SAR studies from all over the world that are grouped in categories such as Alzheimer’s patients, hunters or hikers. The book gives the SAR volunteers a general idea of what decisions the lost person might make.
Alzheimer’s patients, for instance, go straight. Nelson said that no matter what door they go out of, they generally go in a straight line until they can’t go any further.
Although every search is different, he said he’s found the book to be 98 percent accurate in its predictions. This helps the SAR team know where to start the search.
A challenge the teams often run into, which can be easily rendered, is the families have only a vague idea of where their loved ones went and what their plan was.
Woollard and Nelson stressed the importance of telling someone exact information about their planned whereabouts before leaving on a trip. Communication beforehand is paramount in helping the SAR team locate the missing person.
Ward was part of the SAR team when a La Grande man, Jacob Cartwright, was reported missing two weeks ago.
Cartwright was hauling a truckload from Portland to Nyssa when he went missing. He had worked as a truck driver for about a year and half but was fairly new to the area, Ward said, and had been working for his employer for only three weeks. Cartwright, 22, called his wife from Pendleton the night before he was due in Nyssa, stating his GPS was routing him to Highway 395 through Ukiah.
Oregon State Police said the last time the driver’s cellphone pinged a tower was in the area of Highway 233 near Macintyre Road, which is just south of Hilgard State Park.
“His truck disappeared before midnight Tuesday night,” Ward said. “He didn’t show up (to Nyssa) Wednesday morning.”
Cartwright’s boss reported the truck missing that morning and an attempt to locate the vehicle was made by OSP.
Ward said the last signals from Cartwright’s phone caused concern because it meant he was in a wilderness area away from the interstate. The assumption was that Cartwright was driving in the dark on a forest road, where he could have gone off the road into the Grande Ronde River — which is at its highest during this time of the year.
Because Cartwright disappeared in the middle of the week, there were four SAR volunteers available to search the 250 square miles of terrain, Ward said, adding that the volunteers always partner up when searching.
The search focused on the route the GPS had taken Cartwright on. OSP provided a plane to try to spot his truck in the canyon and SAR searched, but they found no evidence of either the driver or his truck.
Without evidence, it was impossible to know if Cartwright had become lost or if he had been abducted or — as is sometimes the case — had simply run off and didn’t want to be found.
By Friday night, there were no SAR volunteers available to continue the search. Ward and law enforcement had exhausted all possibilities of where Cartwright could’ve been with the information they were given.
“We looked at where the GPS would’ve taken him, but you can’t search the world,” Ward said.
The decision was made to suspend the search for Cartwright until more information came available. It’s never an easy decision, but the resources weren’t there to continue.
Cartwright’s story had a happy ending, though. He walked 36 miles in his cowboy boots with no socks and emerged on Saturday in the Ladd Canyon area, where he flagged down a motorist who drove him into La Grande. He had no food and limited water with him and at times had walked through the snow. He was hospitalized but survived.
Ward said in order to have found evidence of Cartwright, SAR would have had to quadruple the search parameters.
“We had no further clues to where he was,” he said. “We just didn’t know.”
Woollard and Nelson said that if you become lost, the best decision you can make is to stay where you are. If you have accurately told people where you are intending to be, SAR can find you easier.
The next step, Woollard said, is to send up smoke.
“Burn something up,” she said, adding people have built fires with nearby tree branches or even burned their tires to send a smoke signal to indicate their location.
“If you have a cell phone, then climb,” said Woollard, explaining signals can get stronger the higher the phone is. Climb a tree or find higher elevation.
However, she added, venturing too far from your location is risky and not advised. She also said that a text message is more likely to get through than a phone call.
Also be prepared, Ward and the SAR volunteers stressed. Have water, food and blankets with you. Dress according to the weather predicted along your route. Make sure someone knows where you’re going to be. And if you get lost, stay put.
Woollard said while people in the community have the inclination to help search if someone is lost, being an effective volunteer for SAR requires training. Every search is treated as if a crime has been committed, and volunteers are trained to respect the crime scene.
However, the team does need more trained volunteers. It’s a rewarding experience and one that helps the community, Nelson said. The volunteers do what needs to be done, he said. They sometimes work long hours trying to find a lost person and get them home safely.
To become a volunteer or learn more about how to help, contact Nelson at 541-786-0510.