By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Just past midnight last Friday morning the Middlebury Police Department and two Vermont State Police troopers floodlit a portion of the Otter Creek behind the baseball diamond at Middlebury Union High School and scanned the water for signs of missing Middlebury College student Nicholas Garza.
They were called to the site after a search and rescue agency from Maine, which had been taking photographs of the river in an aerial assessment on Thursday, identified a suspicious object in its photos late Thursday night.
But after two hours probing the dark water — and at the end of another search of the area led by the Colchester Technical Rescue Squad from 6:30 a.m. until sunset on Friday — authorities were no closer to solving the mystery of the 19-year-old’s disappearance.
It was about a week ago that the Maine agency, Down East Emergency Medical Institute (DEEMI), contacted Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley offering to help. DEEMI volunteers spent Thursday flying at about 500 feet over the Otter Creek and a portion of Lake Champlain, snapping hundreds of photographs along the way.
“The cameras, by virtue of the lighting conditions, can pick up objects as low as 15 feet below the surface of the water,” Hanley explained on Friday afternoon.
At the end of the day DEEMI flew back to Maine where an analyst went through the pictures for suspicious objects.
“In one of their early images they found an object in the water in this area,” Hanley said, referring to a section of the river behind the high school that until now has not been searched. “They didn’t know what it was. Clearly it wasn’t a rock or a tree; it was just a foreign object.”
The DEEMI analyst called the Middlebury police with GPS (global positioning system) coordinates around midnight, and the police went straight to the scene, Hanley said.
“We were probably here about two hours until we just had to call it off because we just couldn’t see anything,” he said. “We brought in some really bright lights but they would reflect off the water. The lower intensity lights couldn’t penetrate the water. And the current is really moving.”
Around 6:30 a.m. Friday morning they returned to the site and were joined by the Colchester squad, which was on its way to Wardsboro to look for a missing kayaker. By the time they were set up to search the Otter Creek, the kayaker was found — so the squad stayed in Middlebury and searched the rest of the day.
Around 2 p.m. a National Guard helicopter from Burlington joined the river search. But after about an hour and a half, finding nothing, it wrapped up the mission.
Hanley stressed that when police began searching, more than 12 hours had passed since DEEMI took the photographs; the fast-moving current could easily have swept an object downstream during that time.
For this reason, the river search is far from over, an Hanley said that the Saranac, N.Y., Fire Department Technical Rescue team that searched the Otter Creek below the Middlebury Falls on April 9 and 10 could return.
“These are tough conditions to search,” he said. “It’s deep, fast moving. It doesn’t end with this search. We have tentative plans to bring Saranac back. Colchester’s coming back. We’re going to bring Stowe Technical Rescue. Obviously their priority is life-saving emergencies. They have to deploy to those first. And you have to keep in mind these guys all have full-time jobs. So they just can’t be out here every day as much as we like.”
DEEMI will continue to help, as well.
“There’s still a lot of image stuff to be done,” Hanley said. “If they call us tonight at 2 in the morning and say we found another object of interest we’d all be rushing out here.”
On Friday afternoon another ground search with the VSP search and rescue team was tentatively scheduled for Saturday.
In Garza’s hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., this weekend, the Middlebury College men’s rugby team played its opening game of the 2008 Division II National Championship, dedicating the match to Garza.
“We feel like this is an opportunity to show our support for Nick’s family and friends in his hometown,” assistant coach and recent Middlebury College graduate Josh Hendrickson said in a press release. “We want people to know we’re thinking about him.”
Garza’s mother, Natalie Garza, who has been living in Middlebury since filing a missing persons report with the Middlebury Police on Feb. 10 — Garza was last seen leaving a dorm on Feb. 5 — is currently planning a volunteer ground search for her 19-year-old son. A definitive date has yet to be announced, but the search will take place on an upcoming weekend.
Those interested in joining the effort should contact her at [email protected].