After a startling bit of misinformation, a half dozen rescuers and a helicopter pilot searched the wrong section of river for two days this past weekend, looking for a missing man and three children.
After spending a scary night alone on the banks of the Gila River, the missing group ultimately managed to traverse the river and hike to the highway, where a passerby picked them up and delivered them to a surprised group of rescuers.
Rescuers later determined a family member had erroneously told searchers the family was missing four miles upstream when they were twice that distance.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Commander Bill Pitterle said the odd and sometimes frustrating mission started around 1:30 a.m. Friday when Gila County Sgt. Terry Lincoln woke Pitterle at his home with a phone call.
Lincoln told Pitterle that a 41-year-old man, 6-year-old boy, 11-year-old girl and 10-year-old girl had been missing on the Gila River since Thursday when they set off on what was supposed to be a quick river trip near Winkelman.
The grandfather of the family had dropped the group off at a point Thursday afternoon. The man and the 6-year-old were in a canoe while the girls were in an inflatable boat. Pitterle said the children were related to the man, but he was not sure if they were his children or nieces and nephew.
The grandfather then drove several miles downstream, where he waited for them to arrive.
After several hours, the group did not arrive and the grandfather became worried and called for help.
Since it is too difficult to search the river by foot due to thick brush, a helicopter was called in and using the grandfather’s information, searched a four-mile stretch of the river.
The pilot made several passes up and down the river, searching Thursday night and again early Friday morning.
When the pilot could not spot the family, TRSAR was called in because they have swift water rescue equipment and are one of the few organizations in the county trained for such missions.
“We collected our gear and started down there by daybreak,” Pitterle said.
“We put in at the supposed point where they were last seen, but saw no sign of anything, no gear, nothing.”
After kayaking to the takeout point, Pitterle and his team of volunteers debated what to do next. TRSAR was planning to traverse the river once more when “right about then a vehicle drove up and the man and kids jumped out of the vehicle.” Turns out, the family had put in eight miles up stream, not four and rescuers and the pilot had missed them.
The family explained to rescuers that shortly after setting off Thursday, their boats had capsized a half-mile downstream. The group managed to rescue themselves and make it to the shore opposite the highway.
Not wanting to cross the river at night, the group waited until morning and then crossed.
The group hiked up to the highway where a passing motorist picked them up and drove them to the pickup point where rescuers were waiting. No one was injured.
Last year, TRSAR used donated money to buy $7,000 worth of kayaks and swift water rescue equipment. Pitterle said they have already used the gear several times and training remains ongoing given the high number of missions the group responds to every summer.