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As storm approaches, the search for a group of missing Bethel hunters becomes a race against time

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Will McCarthy
/
KYUK
Members of AK Dive Rescue watch the sonar monitor for signs of the missing boat.

A dive team that came to Bethel to aid in the search for three hunters who have been missing for over two weeks is facing a race against time as a powerful storm approaches this weekend. Justin Crow, Shane McIntyre, and Carl Flynn left Bethel on August 30 to prepare for moose hunting season, but did not return.

Since three members of the Alaska Dive Rescue team arrived in Bethel on Sept. 12, they’ve had one goal: find the missing hunters' boat. To achieve that, the crew has been gridding the search area with a powerful sonar that can scan deep water.

“We call it mowing the grass,” said Jeremy Lilly, the president of Alaska Dive Rescue. “That's all you're doing: you're literally just going through and you're making sweeps.”

The dive team has been using Bethel Search and Rescue’s boat to slowly scan the river bottom with their side scan sonar, a stainless steel rod about 4 feet long. They’re going as fast as they can.

But bad weather is a real challenge to the success of the search and the schedule of the dive team. A storm system is forecasted to hit coastal Western Alaska this weekend, bringing high storm surges and gusts up to 80 miles per hour. The storm will make the river impassable and delay the search. Strong currents could potentially move the missing boat further from the search area. If there was ever a good time to find the boat, it’s now.

Out on the river, the dive team is trying to be as comprehensive as possible. One crew member mans the cable attached to the sonar, raising and lowering it as necessary to keep it from hitting bottom. Another watches the sonar monitor as a pale, orange-hued image of the river bottom scrolls past.

Lilly keeps an eye on both, calling out when he sees something on the bottom that could potentially be the boat. It takes a keen eye to tell.

“See the shadows coming out, that's a root buttress,” Lilly said. “Here's another one here. These are all trees that you can see in this location, these are rises and falls in the bottom.”

All the information is recorded so that the dive team can review footage and images that look promising later. Although Bethel Search and Rescue has been using sonar and drag bars to search the river, the all-volunteer dive team’s equipment can scan deeper and with more precision. Lilly’s 30 years of experience allow him to identify objects that others couldn’t.

Still, Lilly is quick to point out that they’re just here to help. The dive team crew is all volunteers, the only volunteer search and rescue team in the state, and they’re all taking off work to be here.

“We're here to be another asset to help them with their mission,” Lilly said. “We’re not coming in to take over.”

As the day progresses, the dive team works to scan areas of the river that haven’t already been hit. Over the past two days, most of the region near Straight Slough has been checked. Now, the team is scanning all the way upriver toward the missing hunters’ camp. If that’s unsuccessful, they’ll start looking downriver of where they found debris from the crash site.

Still, even for all their expertise and high tech equipment, the search is essentially a guessing game

“It's basically a big mystery that you're trying to put the pieces together,” Lilly said.

Due to the incoming storm, the dive team left Bethel on Sept. 14. They’ll still be able to review the images and direct Bethel Search and Rescue to objects they identified on the river bottom. The hunters have still not been found.

Will McCarthy is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. Previously, he worked as a furniture mover, producer, and freelance journalist. Will's written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Texas Monthly. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.