Around the Nation
4:53 pm
Sun May 4, 2014

Calling Off The Search: The Emotional Toll Of Search And Rescue

Originally published on Mon May 5, 2014 12:13 pm

A search-and-rescue mission for landslide victims in a remote village in northeastern Afghanistan has been called off. Officials fear there's no hope for reaching the nearly 2,000 people who were buried Friday by mud and rock.

In Washington, the active search for victims of another mudslide was called off last week after more than a month of searching. Two bodies still haven't been found.

And as the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 goes into a third month, families and friends of passengers are yearning for a sense of closure.

Rescue workers often yearn for it as well. But as much as everyone wants closure, sometimes officials have to make the gut-wrenching call that it's time to give up.

Shaun Roundy is a member of the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team. He has been on search missions that were stopped before everyone was found.

"When that happens, then every time you're in that vicinity, you just wonder, where is that person and when will we find them?" Roundy says.

His team is called out to comb snowy mountains for hikers after avalanches, to find lost or injured people in Utah's caves, rivers and lakes. Sometimes — because of weather, manpower or resources — they just can't keep looking.

"When the probability of finding someone drops so low and when everyone has already expended so much of their life in the process — searching and searching, for days and weeks — there comes a point where you have to say we have to cut our losses for now," Roundy says.

Roundy has compiled a book of short stories about his experiences. After more than 14 years with the team, he has become familiar with that sense of not knowing.

"There's a lack of that satisfaction that you're looking for as you search, you're hoping for so intensely all this time. There's a sense of disappointment that you haven't succeeded yet," Roundy says. "And the awareness that the survivors of these people — their family and friends and neighbors — that they're left hanging, and we hate to see that happen."

In a deadly avalanche in Utah in 2003, three people were lost. One body was recovered within a few days; one was found several weeks later. But then the active search was called off.

"Once we'd covered it so many times, there was really nothing we could do until the snow melted," Roundy says. They had crisscrossed the avalanche multiple times, using search dogs and ground-penetrating radar to map the layers of ice and tree branches.

Nearly six months passed before the last body was recovered. Eventually, a passerby found the body when he saw a glove poking out of the snow.

"After something goes wrong or we bring out a fatality, it does have an emotional toll and we need to be careful," Roundy says. "So, often we'll have a critical incident stress debriefing afterward just to make sure people have the opportunity to vent."

When an active search is halted, Roundy says, most of the time family members and loved ones are understanding. Workers have to put their safety first.

"That's what all emergency services are trained in," Roundy says, "because otherwise you're not around to save other people in the future."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

A search and rescue mission for landslide victims in a remote village in northeastern Afghanistan has been called off. Estimates vary but there may have been more than 2,000 people who were buried Friday by mud and rock. It's likely the site will simply become a mass grave. Closer to home, the active search for victims of the Washington state mudslide was called off last week. More than a month after search and rescue workers began working, two people are still missing.

Sheriff Ty Trenary made the announcement Monday.

SHERIFF TY TRENARY: This has been a difficult decision because I know that Kris and Steve's families are both looking for closure.

RATH: As much as everyone wants closure, sometimes officials have to make the gut-wrenching call on when it's time to give up. Shaun Roundy is a member of the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team.

SHAUN ROUNDY: When the probability of finding someone drops so low and when everyone has already expended so much of their life in the process, searching and searching for days and weeks, there comes a point where you have to say, we have to cut our losses for now.

RATH: His team is called out to comb snowy mountains after avalanches and find lost and injured people in Utah's caves, rivers and lakes. Over 14 years with the team, he's become familiar with the sense of not knowing.

ROUNDY: I think there's a lack of that satisfaction that you're looking for as you search, you're hoping for so intensely all this time. There's a sense of disappointment that you haven't succeeded yet. And the awareness that the survivors of these people, their family and friends and neighbors, that they're left hanging. And we hate to see that happen.

RATH: And when you have to do that you've been thrown into the situation, you know, emotionally and physically so intensely, does that stay with you? Is that search still on your mind when you have to move on?

ROUNDY: Absolutely. In fact, we've always eventually found the people we were searching for, but sometimes it took as long as six months. And when that happens then every time you're in that vicinity you just wonder, where is that person and when will we find them?

RATH: You had a situation where you were trying to rescue some people who were buried in a series of avalanches on Christmas Day. How did you get to a point where you determined that further searching was pointless?

ROUNDY: We had a large, about a 40-acre search area, actually seven avalanches that came down in a row and three people were buried and lost. And we found one within a couple days, we found one weeks later. But at some point we had crisscrossed this whole avalanche multiple times with our nine-foot aluminum probe, shoving them down into the snow. We had had dogs go everywhere and we had ground-penetrating radar dragging back and forth across mapping the layers of ice and tree branches and everything.

And once we'd covered it so many times there's really nothing more we could do until the snow melted down deeper. That final one, it took until Easter Sunday and it turns out that one of my students - I was teaching English at the university at the time - had been hiking by and they saw a glove protruding from the snow. And a friend went over and pulled it up and said, oh look a glove, and lifted it up and then there was a hand. So they called 911.

RATH: Do you have to deal with say the families who might be understanding of course that the search may not make sense but they're going to want it to keep going on, right?

ROUNDY: In those situations where we've been going for like over a week, I think they're usually really quite understanding. You know, we have to put our safety first. That's what all emergency services are trained in because otherwise you're not around to save other people in the future.

RATH: You know, there's this really uneasy aspect to this because, you know, we're talking about equations, in a way, balancing risk, looking at the odds. But of course you're dealing with people's lives.

ROUNDY: Yeah.

RATH: Do you deal with the emotional side of that in training for this kind of work?

ROUNDY: You know, we don't get a lot of training in that but after something goes wrong or we bring out a fatality, it does have an emotional toll. And we need to be careful. So often we'll have a critical incident stress debriefing afterward just to make sure people have an opportunity to vent.

Chris Johnson(ph), one of my mentors on search and rescue, early in his rescue career, he went up on an avalanche. There was one fatality there and then someone else who was injured. And as they were working another avalanche swept down and hit them. And they're all OK. They got them down to the ambulance and it wasn't over yet because as they were driving away in the ambulance, an avalanche from the other side of the canyon hit the ambulance.

And at some point sitting in the ambulance he looked at this man, the deceased one, and he realized he had the same pants shell, the same boots, about the same age and he realized, wow, that could've been me. Now it continued to affect him even later because about a week later he woke up in the middle of the night with a panic attack. He could hardly breathe. He just curled up into the fetal position and cried, just sobbed. So it really can have quite a serious effect on us.

RATH: Shaun Roundy is a member of the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team. He's written a book about his experiences, including some of what we talked about just now. It's called "75 Search and Rescue Stories." Shaun, thank you.

ROUNDY: You're welcome. Nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.