Deerfield Lake Search and Recovery
Dakota Digest - 06/15/2012
The sun was shining and the winds were calm at Deerfield Lake on Wednesday. Instead of water recreation and fun on the beach it was perfect conditions for an underwater search and rescue effort. Specially trained dogs and sonar-equipped boats combined with good old fashioned teamwork proved to be the recipe for success in the three-week-long search for fifteen year old Justin Lewis. SDPB's Amy Varland spent time with the Lewis family and shared in their bittersweet day.
Rescue efforts resumed early as every other day during the search, with Search and Rescue helicopters doing a fly-over over Deerfield Lake. The Lewis family assumed their vigil at the boat launch area - hoping only to locate Justin who went missing May 28th. He spent the afternoon kayaking and failed to meet his mother at the appointed time.
Justin's kayak and life jacket were found early on but for weeks there was no sign of the teen.
Volunteers combed a half-mile-wide grassy area surrounding the lake while boaters searched for any sign of him in the water.
After three long weeks of daily searches - the family often went home with more questions than answers
Sonar-equipped boats cover a sixty foot area of the lake bottom. The boats make paths covering the lake and anything that is six feet in length is mapped. The coordinates are forwarded to a team analyzing the images. The team set up shop at the Hill City Fire Department and analyzes the images shown on a big-screen. They then recommend where a dive team should search and investigate further.
Some of the items found at the bottom of Deerfield Lake include a boat, an ice shack, a car, and several rocks and stumps - but no sign of Justin.
After nearly three weeks, it was time to call in more technology. Marcia McMahon is a K-9 handler with the Park County Search and Rescue team from Colorado.
"They get on a scent cone, the wind blows the scent across the lake and they actually steer the boat the way the dog's nose goes," says McMahon.
Her two border collies are trained to detect the scent of human remains. The dogs wear special vests with bells on them.
"And they work in a cone, to the point like an ice cream cone - and that would be the subject. And then once they get as close as they can they do their final alert. Now it's a bark - Koert, he just starts whining and kind of dancing around," says McMahon.
McMahon says training her dogs is a lifestyle.
"Oh, you know it goes on forever. I started them when they were puppies so they learned to be wilderness air scent dogs first and then I kind of simultaneously trained them in water. They were search and rescue dogs at Colorado," says McMahon.
McMahon and one dog head to an area where Justin's kayak was found. The dog gives an affirmative signal that the searchers are close.
The boat team takes the second dog to the same location - and the dog confirms the first dog's findings - within twelve feet.
The first dog is again taken out on a different route to the same location and again notifies the handler with a positive response.
These coordinates are passed on to local officials and the sonar images are analyzed.
After repeatedly coming up empty handed for weeks - the Lewis family found an Idaho couple with the latest sonar technology.
Mike Kintigh is the Regional Supervisor of Game Fish & Parks.
"The family had contacted an individual, Mr. Rolston, I believe from the Boise Idaho area, who came to assist with the search. Once he arrived it became obvious right away that Game Fish & Parks and himself basically operated the same type of equipment. The scanning that he could do was already done by Game Fish & Parks," says Kintigh.
Gene and Sandy Ralston - with Ralston and Associates Mountain Rescue have more than ten years experience analyzing sonar data. The Ralston's do not charge for their services, instead they just request that their expenses related to getting to South Dakota be paid.
"We met with him and it was apparent to me very quickly that he had a lot more experience in reading the sonar images than any of our staff did," says Kintigh.
The Pennington County dive team is called in after sonar images are confirmed to show something in the area.
Dustin Willett is the Pennington County Emergency Manager. He says Mother Nature can often get in the way of underwater rescue efforts.
"You know at this point we've been out here for two weeks so it would be fantastic if we could bring some closure to the family today," says Willett.
The Ralston's boat joined the Pennington County Dive team and the Game Fish and Parks boat that was carrying Gary Lewis - Justin's dad - on the water.
The family remains cautiously optimistic and waits at the boat launch area for any update.
After nearly an hour of painful suspense, Gary Lewis returned to the boat launch area to inform his family that Justin's body was found.
Lewis said that recovering Justin would take time. An ambulance arrived on the scene.
An autopsy was performed and the official cause of death is accidental drowning.
The family says they are grateful for the community support as well as the dedication by the search officials not to give up.
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