Volunteers comb beaches for debris after ground search efforts suspended
December 10, 2020
Local volunteers are continuing to comb beaches for personal belongings and debris from the Dec. 2 landslide that left Haines residents Jenae Larson and David Simmons missing. On Monday, Alaska State Troopers suspended search operations due to continued rain and the likelihood of more landslides in the area.
On Tuesday, the families of Larson and Simmons gathered at the fire hall to thank volunteers who assisted with the search and rescue effort.
"I would like to thank you guys all for all the support we've gotten from you guys, the efforts you guys have put into everything," said Kim Larson, Jenae Larson's mother. "Thank you very much."
Simmons' father, Randall Simmons, told volunteers Simmons was the most important person in his life and commended the volunteers for their efforts.
"I'm sure he'd be thanking you and so grateful for what you guys have done," Randall Simmons said. "I can't imagine what you've been through this last week with weather and the conditions."
The day after the Beach Road slide, roughly 100 community volunteers showed up at 6 a.m. at the Public Safety Building, answering a call from Mayor Douglas Olerud to assist with the search. Volunteers were unable to conduct ground searches due to unstable conditions.
"It was a lot of standing around and a lot of waiting," said Nolan Woodard, one of the volunteers who answered Olerud's call. Woodard said he felt compelled to volunteer because he was lucky enough to be safe and because of his personal connection to Simmons and Larson.
He said rather than let feelings of frustration and uselessness consume him, he tried to channel his energy into being present with the task at hand, whether that was spotting for a dog team, combing the beach for artifacts or standing around the fire hall waiting for further instructions.
"Around the fire hall, I was checking on people, making sure they were drinking and eating, helping carry things. A lot of people were feeling the stress of being stuck, and I had the realization that if I allowed that stuck feeling to consume me, I was really going to be in a bad place," Woodard said.
Volunteers have spent recent days combing local beaches. Between Monday and Wednesday, 150 people have collected roughly 230 bags of debris along beaches between the CIA dock and the ferry terminal, according to organizer Burl Sheldon. The majority of the debris was styrofoam and pieces of insulation.
"A few personal artifacts but not really much in terms of valuables," Sheldon said. Combers found artifacts ranging from coolers to ski boots to ping pong balls.
Sheldon said there are plans to continue volunteer beach combing in the future, likely Saturday or Sunday, once tides have an opportunity to stir up more artifacts.
The volunteer beach combing effort started Monday, the same day state troopers announced the suspension of active search and rescue operations. Olerud notified the community early Monday evening that continued rain and the risk of more landslides prevented further search efforts of the debris field along Beach Road.
"We are doing everything we can to find them," Olerud said. "Looking at the reality of the situation, a slide happened a couple days ago, and we have been experiencing winter weather conditions and continued amounts of precipitation have been falling. It doesn't look good, and it brings me great pain to say that it is more than likely that Jenae and David are deceased."
The Troopers said they suspended operations earlier in the day and ground searchers left Haines on the P/V Enforcer.
"We have done all we can without going into the debris field and it is not safe to send people into," trooper spokesperson Megan Peters said. "If it's unstable, we're not going to put search and rescue volunteers at unnecessary risk."
The 600-foot wide slide debris has remained unstable according to state geohydrologists and geoscientists due to heavy precipitation in the days following the slide. When conditions stabilize, Peters said it's possible trooper assets will return to continue searching.
"Typically, when we have situations like these, we revisit them when it's safe to do so," Peters said. "That can take weeks or months. It depends on the weather and the ground and what resources are available. We do our best to account for individuals one way or another."
Olerud thanked state and federal agencies that assisted in the search thus far, including "our very own Haines Volunteer Fire Department and Haines Borough Police Department."
"So many heeded the call when we asked for help," Olerud said. "From the bottom of my heart, thank you all."
Immediately after the slide occurred, organizations throughout the region mobilized, including Juneau Mountain Rescue (JMR), SEADOGS, Capital City Fire/Rescue, Alaska State Troopers, U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska National Guard.
The troopers added Simmons and Larson to the trooper's list of missing persons, a repository of all missing persons reported to law enforcement across the state.