How many times have we wished we had performed the witness interviews differently after the search?
Recently I was asked to help out with the recovery of an ice fisherman that went through the ice with his UTV. A UTV for those not familiar, is a large all-terrain vehicle big enough to hold four adults. A friend of the victim’s family called to inform me two area dive teams had put in a couple of days searching and the search was being called off because divers were having problems due to the cold weather conditions.
I was put in contact with the Emergency Management Director who was also the IC. At the end of day three the EMD called and asked if I would now come after a third dive team came up with no results.
The witness was interviewed by the first Sheriff’s Deputy on scene. I asked to be put in contact with the witness when I arrived. The EMD indicated that the witness was a close friend and was having a hard time with this and that she had the witness report.
The Report: The two fishermen each had their own UTV’s and had been out on the lake fishing most of the day. At dusk they were crossing the lake. When the witness got to shore he turned and saw his friend and UTV breaking through the ice about 100 yards off shore. The witness then ran out onto the ice and grabbed the victim’s hand as he slipped under the ice.
When I arrived at the scene of the accident, it was now day four after the incident. I met with the EMD and once again asked to speak with the witness. The EMD indicated she was unsure if the witness was available and highly doubted he was willing to speak about the situation, still having too difficult a time with the circumstances. From past experiences I knew how critical getting first-hand information is. Our human instinct is to nurture someone in pain and not further suffering so I hesitantly not pursue another witness interview or press the issue with the EMD.
We then had a briefing with the third dive team who had just packed up and would be heading home after two long days on and under the ice. It was during this briefing I asked a question that brought up a point about this particular UTV structure. This threw up a red flag for the dive team immediately. It was decided that the vehicle needed to be re-checked before they went home.
Essentially the third dive team assumed the vehicle had been completely cleared by the previous dive teams. They focused their search on the outer perimeter of the vehicle with this assumption. Once they dropped down to the vehicle, the victim was found in the back seat of the UTV. The previous dive teams shined a light in the back but had not opened the doors to clear the vehicle 100%.
As with all scenarios we learn so that the next mission is conducted more efficiently. My feeling is, had there been a thorough interview with the witness, this case would have been wrapped up on the first dive. We often get caught up in the emotions of the participating parties and sometime our emotions affect the outcome.
It turns out the witness was holding onto the victim’s hand as he was trying to get out. He couldn’t because the door wouldn’t open far enough. The victim went under the ice while in the fully enclosed cab of a four door UTV.
Interviewing the WITNESS will be the key to all successful searches!
By Keith Cormican