The search and rescue (SAR) operation looking for Gabriola Island resident Dave Hepper ended last Wednesday, March 23rd. SAR command reported that the official search and rescue volunteers spent more than 1738 hours on this search. 112 of these hours were put in by Gabriola firefighers, who assisted search teams on the first evening until the early hours of Monday morning. Probably another 30+ hours were put in by GVFD members that is not reflected in that total.
SAR teams performed an intensive search over a wide area that was considered the most likely place for Dave to be found. They also searched many more places that were not-so-likely, but needed to be checked anyway.
These volunteer teams came to Gabriola to help in the search:
- Nanaimo Search and Rescue
- Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue
- Ladysmith Search and Rescue
- Coquitlam Search and Rescue
- Squamish Search and Rescue
- Saanich Search and Rescue
- Surrey Search and Rescue
- Metchosin Ground Search and Rescue
- Arrowsmith Search and Rescue
- Lions Bay Search and Rescue
- Alberni Valley Rescue Squad
- Campbell River Search and Rescue
- Cowichan Search and Rescue
Up to 60 SAR personnel per day were involved in the search. Many island residents were also searching. These ‘convergent’ volunteers, as the non-SAR people are known, were mostly not registered and their hours not accounted for, but I believe the estimated 200 people would have accrued a much higher number of hours while searching. They were asked to not enter the primary grid search area and to concentrate on areas such as the 707 park. (Due to BC’s safety regulations, SAR members must take 100 hours of basic training courses before being able to participate in searches.)
The total man-hour figure does not include the time spent by the RCMP, helicopter and fixed wing searches, the harbour patrol boat and coast guard auxiliary that dropped off beach searching personnel. The aircraft and harbour patrol boats are equipped with the latest FLIR (heat detecting) cameras, which were used during the searches. Gertie volunteers assisted by driving searchers to the various areas that they were assigned to cover.
A team from Gabriola Emergency Social Services prepared many meals for the searchers in the fire hall kitchen over the 3 days, spending about 95 hours in the process. Food was also donated by Gabriolans to support the SAR teams.
This was probably the biggest inter-agency operation in Gabriola history.
In spite of the extensive search, much of it in heavy rain in the dark forest, Dave was not found by the searchers, but by friends the following day. Conditions had improved and the bright sunshine revealed his body about 40m off of a trail in an area that had been searched during the previous days. Search dogs had been deployed in the area but the heavy rains and prevalent human scent apparently covered the tracks.
Dave’s body was recovered on the evening of Thursday, March 24, bringing a sad end to this story. Based on evidence they compiled, the RCMP believes that Dave passed away early on Sunday, before the search had even started.
During a debriefing at SARs headquarters in Nanaimo on March 29, maps with all the GPS search tracks were shown to reveal the extent of the search – and the fact that searchers had come so close to Dave’s location without detecting him. A discussion of what went right – mostly everything – vs what didn’t revealed the depth of care these people extend to these endeavors. Their disappointment at the outcome was obvious.
What they also said at the debriefing revealed a lot about our community. They have never experienced the level of community support that they did here. From the food donated to various businesses not charging them for supplies to people paying for their meals in restaurants they were overwhelmed at the generosity. In spite of the sad outcome, we have a lot to be proud of as a community.
I would like to extend a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to help search for our fellow islander.
A final note: the SAR team members who searched for Dave are volunteers. They spend a significant amount of time and effort in taking courses, practicing and developing search expertise… and, of course, using their skills when a search is needed. When they are called, they leave their homes, families, pets, and jobs, dropping everything to help as much as they can. As if that isn’t enough, they often have to do significant fund-raising to buy the equipment they need.
If you’d like to show your appreciation for the immense effort these teams made in coming to Gabriola and searching for Dave, please consider making a donation to help support them. Any funds you give will help to ensure that teams are properly equipped for future searches. The names of the SAR teams who helped us are above; click a team name to visit the team’s website, where you will probably see a donation link.
Our nearest search and rescue team and the lead agency in this search is Nanaimo Search and Rescue. Their website links to this page at Canada Helps, where you can donate, if you wish. A receipt for income tax purposes will be provided.