It’s difficult to assess the sense of loss our community experienced recently. The deaths of two young women, one in a tragic accident and the other in the ensuing search and rescue operation, have saddened us deeply.
The story started innocently enough, with rumours, later confirmed by RCMP, that Lana Chipesia was missing. Young people go missing often, though. They are, after all, young, and subject to whims and spur of the moment decisions, regardless of what their day-to-day responsibilities might be. The situation took sudden turns for the worse, though, when police received a report from a relative of Chipesia that there were signs that a vehicle had gone off the road near the Goat River bridge on Highway 21. Shortly after, a canoeist reported spotting a white car in the middle of the Goat River, about 100 metres downriver from the bridge.
Search and rescue (SAR) teams were mustered and a group of swift water rescue technicians arrived from Nelson. Unless you live under a rock, you already know what happened next. In an attempt to secure a tow cable to the submerged car, SAR volunteer Sheilah Sweatman was pulled from her rescue boat into the fast-flowing water. Helpless SAR techs and police officers could only watch on in horror as she didn’t reappear.
I visited the site several times on the following day, watching as SAR volunteers worked to retrieve Sweatman’s body. It wouldn’t be for another three days that a helicopter search located Chipesia’s body about two kilometres downstream from her car.
As I watched SAR technicians working, first to secure a boat at the site of the submerged car, then to find and retrieve Sweatman’s body, I shared their profound sadness. SAR volunteers are high energy, highly trained men and women who excel at teamwork. In the times I’ve had the privilege to be among them, I’ve always been struck by the camaraderie they share. To witness their recovery efforts and see the grim faces of Sweatman’s almost completely silent comrades was, frankly, one of my saddest experiences in my newspaper career. In the end, I simply couldn’t remain on the site — I had no interest in attempting to take a photo that included Sweatman’s body and I felt more like a voyeur than a reporter.
When I spoke to RCMP Const. Shelley Livingstone after her helicopter search crew had located Chipesia’s body, she talked about the sense of relief her family had exhibited. And she also talked about what finding the young mother’s body meant to SAR volunteers. Knowing that they really had been working to recover a vehicle that had been driven by Chipesia meant that the search and rescue mission hadn’t been a wild goose chase. I doubt that the recovery of Chipesia’s body meant that SAR members starting sleeping better, but over the long term I suspect their hurt will be tempered knowing that their fellow volunteer died on a genuine mission.
More than 2,500 volunteers in 80 British Columbian communities are on call day and night to provide emergency responses in missing person cases. They are, in almost every sense of the word, professionals. But they don’t get paid. In fact, not so long ago, we ran a story about SAR volunteers having to raise money to pay for insurance to cover their activities. It was a sad testimony about how easily we take for granted people who give so freely of their time and skills to make us all a bit safer.
As a citizen, I am extremely grateful for the emergency services we have. Police, emergency medical teams, medical personnel — they all work selflessly. But we owe a special debt of gratitude for search and rescue technicians and firefighters, who are professional in every way, except they don’t get paid. Thank you to you all.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.