By John Banuelos
The year 2013 has certainly has been one of the more challenging years for CoCoSAR missions. In recent months, CoCoSAR has sought subjects in remote locations, subjects who were either found deceased or not found at all. For a searcher, any searcher, this is not the desired result. We all live for the words “found in good health.” But even just the word “found,” which can be code for “found deceased,” provides closure for families.
Closure is important for all – the best case obviously being “found in good health.” But even just “found” allows a family and friends to address their goodbyes to the spirit of a loved one. As searchers, we return to our regular lives knowing we have provided some form of comfort either way by answering the question, “Where is our loved one?”
Gene Penaflor disappeared while hunting on Hull Mountain. For days local SAR teams worked the high-probability areas, seeking to find this experienced, 72-year-old hunter. SAR and Sheriff resources deployed in a multi-day search effort. Everyone wanted him found as the cold and impending bad weather of the year was coming, but nobody wanted him found more than his family and his longtime hunting partner. Hope of success filled the air over many days.
Like all the SAR members on Hull Mountain, Gene’s family and friends stayed the long days and cold nights on the mountain. They prayed for good news as SAR members returned from assigned searches. They helped as best they could in determining where their beloved family member and friend might have strayed.
Eventually a search must be called when the search team feels it has done its best. In this case, the decision to stop carried a great burden for the search manager and every searcher: The family had stood watch at the edge of the operation center waiting for news, any news. How do you tell people who love the subject that volunteer resources need to return home, high-probability areas have been covered multiple times, and the impending poor weather may prevent a safe continuation of effort? In truth there is no easy way to do this.
We all hoped for good news before the final decision needed to be made. We quietly talked among ourselves about staying on despite the impending weather. Yet, the hour came when SAR members and family stood together for that final talk. The families and friends understood the choices and decisions that had been made, they thanked everyone for their efforts, and then the tears came. There was to be no closure for them on that day.
Seeing the tears of a family was a new experience for me, but hearing the sobs of sadness from his longtime hunting partner resonated even deeper. A searcher asks him/herself many questions. Can I stay and help this family? Did I search hard enough? What more can I do? One does not wish to leave with the memory of these quiet tears and heavy sobs.
Still in the end, we searchers left, pondering on the long drive home, “Did I do enough?” Even as regular life resumed, the memory of those tears and that question continued to haunt us.
Lack of closure is the worst of all situations for all involved; no one is untouched.
But for Gene Penaflor the miracle of miracles occurred. For 19 days he survived, lost and injured in a remote canyon. He was found by hunters in the area, and then recovered by SAR and Sheriff resources. He was returned to the smiles and happy tears of reunion with family and friends.
Closure was, after all, granted. And relief was granted to all who left amidst the sad tears of that day, for Gene had been “found in good health.”
The following was written for another who was found deceased. It is my source of courage for searches to come. I call it my SAR prayer.
My uniform lies on the chair. My gear is next to it. My silent prayer continues, “May no one be lost or in silent distress shrouded by the darkness. But should they be, we will go out to search for them until found.”
By John Banuelos