Friday, January 09, 2009

GENE & SANDRA RALSTON - Side Scan Search & Recovery

Angels do live on earth.

You may know them, be related to them or have met them. First responders, doctors, nurses, firemen, law enforcement, family members or friends. They help us when we are at a low point in our lives. They pick us up, dust us off, and help us to carry on. Many of us meet some of those Angels when things go horribly wrong in our lives.

There are other types of Angels. Search & Recovery.

They are the ones called in when a search or a recovery has been deemed too difficult, too deep, or local agencies have exhausted their resources.

Meet Gene and Sandra Ralston.

Photo by Bill Dwyer, wjinc, of Gene & Sandra Ralston onboard
the Kathy G. Photo provided to CMM by Gene & Sandra Ralston.

The Ralston's renamed their vessel after Kathy Garrigan, an Ameri-corps Volunteer from Illinois, who the Ralston's searched for, and recovered in Alaska. Bill Dwyer's article, A year later, Garrigon's count blessings, explains about that search and the decision to rename the vessel.

At last count, they are responsible for 56 people who have been recovered and returned to their families and friends. Remains that would have continued to rest in their watery graves, except for the skill and dedication of the Ralstons.

They give generously of their time, spending anywhere from 150 to 200 days away from their own home and family to conduct searches and training throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Aruba.

It's not just that they've provided specialized skills to help recover accident, drowning or homicide victims. Gene & Sandy approach each survey with empathy and compassion for those they are searching for, and for their loved ones who are desperately hoping to bring them home. They've made a lasting impression upon the family, friends, and communities of those they've recovered.

In 2004, Gene & Sandra Ralston were nominated to receive a Special Commendation from the Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards Committee. The awards are generally given for outstanding achievement in swiftwater search and rescue, but also include recognition for other water search and rescue achievement.

Gene & Sandy graciously allowed me to interview them for CMM:

Patsy: How did you both feel when you were informed you were nominated?
Were you able to travel to D.C. to the ceremony?

Gene & Sandy: "It was a great honor to be nominated and even greater honor to be selected. We were unable to attend the award ceremony because we were conducting a search for a missing person."

Patsy: How would you describe, or give a name to what you do?

Gene: "We perform underwater search and recovery for anything underwater. We primarily search for missing people, but also search for vehicles, boats and aircraft."

Patsy: You've spoken about how, in 1983 you recovered a drowning victim and ever since have volunteered your services. Would you tell us more about that?

Gene: "We were building a small whitewater jet boat in the 1980's. It was especially designed for boating shallow water as well as white water rivers. In March, 1983, I was asked to help search for a missing woman in the Boise River. The river was at flood stage and few boats were able to navigate the narrow river. We had to launch our boat down a set of concrete steps because there were no boat ramps in that reach of the river.

The woman had gone missing late the night before and we started a visual search
along the river banks. We found her lodged against a tree, which had been undercut by the current and had fallen into the river. Her family's expressions of gratitude were overwhelming.

A week later we were asked to search for a two year old boy who had gone missing from his front yard. Authorities thought he may have wandered to, and fallen into the river near his home. We did not find him and he is still missing today."

Patsy: How do you usually get involved in a case? Is it the family or Law Enforcement, (or both) or some other organizations that contact you?

Gene & Sandy: "Most often we are contacted by the family or a close friend of the family of the missing person. Occasionally a law enforcement agency or search and rescue group will contact us early on in an incident, but usually we are asked to help long after others have given up searching."

Patsy: If a person or a family needs the type of services you provide, what agency or person would you recommend they start with in their own area?

Gene: "Typically we are contacted after all of the local search and rescue organizations have exhausted their resources. We do know a few private people with similar equipment who are able to travel outside their local area to assist others. Unfortunately there are some national organizations that we can not recommend because of our past experiences with them."

Patsy: If a person or family would like to request your services directly, how would they go about doing so?

Gene: "Anyone needing our assistance can contact us directly by phone
(208) 362-1303, or by email glralston @ Since we are a private organization, we do not have to be requested by or through a law enforcement agency."

Patsy: You volunteer the use of your ROV, vessel, and the side scan sonar. What do you require as payment for your services?

Gene: "All we ask for our assistance is that our expenses be reimbursed. This includes our motorhome and boat fuel, and camping fees. Many times a local campground or marina will donate a camping space.

We also ask for a small fee based upon mileage, which partly covers our overhead costs such as insurance, equipment maintenance and repairs. We drive between 20,000 and 30,000 miles each year, so we have considerable upkeep.

Most of our searches cost less than $2000 depending upon the cost per gallon of fuel. A trip to the east coast could cost as much as $5000."

Patsy: What if someone isn't in a position to be able to provide expenses?

Gene: "When a family cannot afford the cost, we give them suggestions for soliciting donations and fund raising, which generally produces more than our expenses.

We have conducted searches at no cost when they are close to home and our expenses are minimal. We do not ask for money up front, and only once have we not been paid as agreed by the requesting party."

Patsy: How do you decide whether to take on a particular search request?

Gene & Sandy: "We attempt to get as much information about the incident as possible to evaluate whether or not we can be of any further assistance in the search.

On two occasions we were able to review side scan images made by others and found three victims, which they had missed. In one case, the local divers were able to recover the victim without our having to go to the scene.

Investigators in the other case refused to believe they had imaged the father and son victims so we had to travel to Ohio to recover them. It has been very rare that we have declined assistance and that is usually because the conditions underwater were not suitable for using side scan or the search area was too large to cover in a reasonable amount of time."

Patsy: When do you know it's time to end a search? How do you go about making that decision?

Gene & Sandy: "We continue a search until we believe we have covered the area as thoroughly as possible with a high probability of detection. Often we expand the search outside the original area until we believe we have covered all of the area the victim could be in.

The decision to end a search does not come lightly. It is made in consultation with the family as well as the responsible legal authority. On a few occasions we have returned to continue searching if new information is discovered or additional witnesses come forward."

Patsy: Do you ever allow family members or friends of the person you are searching for onto the boat during a search? Or during an actual recovery?

Gene & Sandy: "Yes, we have had family members or close family friends onboard when we were searching. We have had family members on board when we first discovered the missing person, but we do not allow them on board during the recovery process. That is not something a family member should experience because it will be a lasting memory that may overshadow better memories. On every occasion that a family member was on board, it was a very positive emotional experience for them as well as for us."

Patsy: It's difficult for anyone to tell someone that their loved one is deceased, much less to inform them that they've been lost underwater. It must be equally hard to inform a family that they've been found and recovered. Would you explain how you feel when you notify a family that you have located or recovered their loved one?

Gene & Sandy: "It is difficult to explain the feeling. It is a mixture of sadness, relief, and intense satisfaction that we have been able to bring some resolution to terrible tragedy. Families often tell us that no words can possibly express their gratitude for bringing their loved one home."

Patsy: Do any of the families of those you've recovered maintain contact with you?

Gene & Sandy: "Many of the families we help stay in contact with us. The brother of a young Peruvian man we found in a lake in California, calls us just before Christmas every year to let us know how much his family appreciates what we do and to see how we are doing. We often visit families when we travel through their home towns."

Patsy: How important is it to have Law Enforcement's co-operation on scene? How co-operative are they usually? Have you run into authorities who were skeptical about what you do or your chances?

Gene & Sandy: "It is important to have a responsible agency involved and on the water in one or more boats. Many of our searches are on very busy waterways and we need a law enforcement presence to keep other boat traffic away from our search area and to keep their boat wakes from creating problems with the side scan images. Most of the time, the local authority will provide at least one boat for patrol. A few times they did not provide any assistance and only wanted to be contacted when we found what we were looking for.

The worst situations we have encountered for lack of support have been in Canada. Never have we had RCMP patrol during a search and most of the time they do not even show up after the victim has been recovered and brought to shore. They simply sent an ambulance or other transport to pick up the body. Once the RCMP thought we were going to transport the body to the funeral home! In that case we had to make the arrangements with the funeral home to do the transport.

Early in our career, many agencies were skeptical about the capabilities of the equipment. Now, as more agencies are learning about the equipment, they are more willing to request our services and are even buying their own equipment."

Patsy: Who pilots the boat?

Gene: "Sandy drives the boat and is a very key part of our "team". Sandy has a realtime navigation program, which she uses to follow the parallel search grid lines. She has the most difficult job of either of us. It can be very tedious, boring and tiring keeping the boat on the correct line hour after hour but the rewards are great.

Patsy: I know you've helped first responders in Wauconda, Illinois train in identifying bodies underwater using side-scan sonar. After you've conducted a difficult, but successful recovery mission, have other Law Enforcement agencies ever obtained their own sonar? Have you helped in their training too?

Gene & Sandy: "As more agencies buy their own equipment, it becomes increasingly important for them to get good training. We started a training program in 2001 and have been doing more training as agencies learn about us. Several agencies have bought side scan equipment based on our successful searches in their jurisdictions, particularly when we have found the victim within
a few minutes of beginning the search.

Many agencies only use their equipment a few times a year, which is not sufficient to attain and maintain proficiency. In addition, as staff is rotated to other positions, the new staff needs to be trained."

Patsy: Was it more difficult getting set up or in getting co-operation for a search in Aruba or Mexico? What sort of things do you have to prepare for when doing a search out of the U.S. or Canada?

Gene: "Texas Equusearch asked for my help in Aruba. They were responsible for doing all of the preparation and getting permission to conduct the search. It was too much of a problem to get my equipment shipped and into the country, so they rented lighter weight equipment in Houston and the rental agency arranged the necessary paperwork to get the equipment into and returned from Aruba.

Shipping equipment to a foreign country requires the use of an ATA Carnet, which is essentially a passport for equipment. It requires a bond posted in the amount of the value of the equipment, which is forfeited if you do not take the equipment out of the country. When I went to Mexico, I did not take equipment, but rather went to provide training to the team in the use of their own equipment.

When we travel to Canada, we drive, taking our own boat and equipment. It is much easier crossing the border by driving than flying and shipping equipment. I did fly on my last trip to Newfoundland because they had just purchased their own equipment and wanted help with the search."

Patsy: Other than Texas Eqqusearch, what other Rescue groups have you worked closely with?

Gene & Sandy: "We have worked with many search and rescue groups in the local area of our searches. One notable organization was the Canadian Navy's Atlantic Fleet Diving Unit in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Following the recovery there, we were invited to tour their facility, which was very interesting to see their ships and equipment."

Patsy: You've been involved in many less publicized cases as well as several high profile searches including Laci Peterson, Natalie Holloway, and the case of four Russian mafia homicide victims. What was the largest search effort you've ever been involved in?

Gene: "The largest search, in terms of number of agencies involved and the size of the search area, would be the search for Laci Peterson. There were dozens of agencies involved and hundreds of people and we searched areas from Tuolumne County to San Francisco Bay.

The search for Stacy Peterson also involved a huge number of agencies and people, but the search area was much smaller."

Patsy: What search do you feel was the most difficult technically?

Gene: "The most difficult challenges for the use of side scan include irregular rocky bottom conditions. The two worst areas in this regard were the Eastern coast of Newfoundland and Shuswap Lake in British Columbia. In both locations, there were near vertical rock walls with crevasses and large boulders, which could easily hide the people we were looking for. In situations like these, we attempt to use our ROV to visually search, but that is a very time consuming process to search a large area. Large, still standing trees can also make searching difficult.

We searched for space shuttle Columbia debris in Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana border. Much of the reservoir was filled with a still standing forest of 85 foot tall trees in 80 feet of water! The only way to avoid the trees was to stay in the buoyed lanes where the old highways once were."

Patsy: Having grown up in the region close to Toledo Bend I'm familiar with the water conditions and terrain difficulties you faced in the search for the Columbia, and how far the debris field spread. In your search for the Columbia, were you called upon to look for remains, debris or both?

Gene: "Initially we were searching for remains as well as debris in the reservoir. The last astronaut was found on land towards the end of the first week I was on scene. Several reports were received from fishermen on the very foggy lake that morning indicating they heard very loud splashes nearby. We tried to pinpoint those areas from the witness statement and search those areas first. The only piece of debris found in the lake to my knowledge, was a portion of a wheel assembly and brake."

Patsy: How long were you on site?

Gene: "I was at Toledo Bend Reservoir about two weeks. I arranged for a friend of mine who has the same equipment to take over my position when I left. He remained there several weeks."

Patsy: Each search takes a toll on the emotions, but particularly those searches that are unsuccessful. And being away from home so much has to affect both of you in some way. How do you both handle that?

Gene & Sandy: "The emotional toll starts when we are first contacted by a family member. Often we have not heard about the incident and every story is shocking to hear, especially details provided by a family member who is desperate to find their loved one.

As the search goes on, we often become close to the family and like to keep them informed of our progress and any problems we are experiencing. We try to look beyond the tragedy of the incident to the good that can come from finding the missing person and bringing them home to their family.

Patsy: Has there been a search that you would have liked to been involved in but couldn't because of other commitments?

Gene & Sandy: "We have had to decline going to some searches because of prior commitments. It is very difficult to prioritize searches when we have multiple requests.

We have a number of criteria for consideration of priority. We place missing children as well as homicide investigations as a very high priority. Usually we try to prioritize based on first come, first served. We have combined multiple searches in a single trip, usually going to the closest location first.

Patsy: Do you always use your own vesssel and sonar gear or are there times when you use someone else's?

Gene & Sandy: "We prefer to use our own boat and equipment because we are familiar with it and it is all set up the way we want to make searching easier. In addition, we are not at the mercy of someone else and their schedule. On a few occasions we have had to use someone else's boat because it was not advisable to tow our boat during severe winter conditions or the search was outside North America."

Patsy: Has there been occasions when you were searching for someone and found others?

Gene: "During two separate searches we have found people we were not looking for. In one case on Hayden Lake in Northern Idaho, we knew a man had been missing in the lake for about 19 months, but had no idea in what part of the lake. We found him within the first five minutes of beginning to search for a teen aged boy who had drowned within the past few days. After finding the first man, we continued the search and found the young man seven minutes after resuming the search.

The second time this happened was on Priest Lake, also in Northern Idaho. We were searching for a man who went missing while sailing. His boat was found aground on an island two days after anyone had last seen him. The search area was very large because we had no idea where he may have fallen from the sailboat.

A few days into the search we found what initially appeared to be a bear on the bottom of the lake near the island in about 350 feet of water. We asked a search dog handler friend of ours to go into that area to see if her water trained cadaver dog would express any interest. Sure enough, her dog got very excited. We borrowed an ROV to inspect the body and sure enough it was a human. The condition of the remains were too fragile to recover more than a small portion.

We also found a small wooden boat nearby, which matches the style of boats used on the lake in the early 1900's. A review of missing person records dating back to 1915 or so did not reveal anyone missing in that area."

Patsy: Do you always have a water trained cadaver dog and handler on site for each search?

Gene: "We try to have the local authority request water trained search dogs before we arrive. We have a very good friend in Montana whom we trust and believe in, that we ask to go on some searches when she is available. She has gone as far as Iowa and Arkansas to participate in searches with us."

Patsy: Is it common for you to search specifically for someone and find others?

Gene: "No, it is very uncommon to find someone we are not looking for. We do find sunken boats, cars and other items lost or intentionally dumped in the water, but we seldom do anything with those items other than report the locations to the local authorites for followup."

Patsy: You've told me about a missing person case dating back to the 1800's in the area of Priest Lake that you were interested in. Would you tell us more aboutthat?

Gene: "We have heard reports of a priest who went out on the lake in the late 1800's to visit a parishioner and never returned. There is a house on the island nearby, which would have been there in that time period. We have not been able to identify that person we found because he/she is in about 350 feet of water and the remains are very fragile and difficult to recover.

The design of the boat matches that of row boats on the lake in that time period. We would like to return someday to do further research to see if we can determine the identity of this person and if the boat we found nearby could yield clues."

Patsy: Thank you very much Gene & Sandy for consenting to this interview and providing us an informative and interesting insight into the search and recovery work that you do.

Gene & Sandy: "You're welcome, and thank you for having us."

Unfortunately, some of us at some time, will require the specialized services of Gene & Sandra Ralston. And when we do, they, and others like them, are out there working to find and bring home lost loved ones, to provide a chance for loved ones to say as the Ralstons put it, "a last, best, goodbye" possible given the circumstances.