By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Volunteer rescue workers from the Saranac Fire Department Technical Rescue Team of Saranac Lake, N.Y., joined the effort to locate missing Middlebury College Student Nicholas Garza on Wednesday morning with an underwater search of Otter Creek.
Members of the Middlebury Fire Department assisted about 16 rescue workers from Saranac as they lowered video cameras into the dark water and prodded through debris along the shoreline.
Don Uhler, chief of the Saranac team, has been following the Garza case for weeks. Last Thursday he contacted Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley to offer the expertise and technology of his team, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) swift water rescue team that incorporated underwater cameras into its searches two years ago.
Without underwater cameras, searchers may have had to wait until water levels receded later in the spring to conduct a full search of the river.
Uhler’s search includes three main functions: attaching a boat to a high-line rope system and dropping a camera into the water around the falls and near the footbridge; sending two teams along the shoreline to search debris piles with probes; and searching the river’s eddies, the outer corners where water becomes slow-moving.
“There is clearly a good reason to believe we could locate a person if they were a victim of the river,” he said. “The river is very predictable.”
When a person falls into a cold-water current like the Otter Creek in February, the process is always the same, Uhler explained. A body will descend through three phases, known as the top, middle and bottom load. If the person is conscious, he will remain in the top load longer as he fights the current. If he is unconscious, or cannot beat the current, he will sink to the middle load and finally the bottom.
“If there’s a lot of debris in the river a person’s clothes can become ensnared in the debris,” Uhler said.
In warmer water, a body would become more buoyant, rise to the surface and begin moving on the current. But in the Otter Creek’s cold water, it’s unlikely a body would travel far from where it entered the river, Uhler explained.
“In a matter of one to two minutes he could have gone from top load to bottom load, especially with the current,” he said. “With the cold water conditions we have now, once a person becomes trapped in a certain area in the river, they would probably stay there for a while.”
Uhler’s team plans to keep searching around the falls and the footbridge until it finds some evidence of Garza, or until it can begin to rule out the possibility the 19-year-old was there.
“If it takes three days, we’ll spend three days,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged the cameras and probing techniques aren’t perfect.
“I don’t want anyone to think this is foolproof,” Uhler said. “It’s very rapid, swift water. Visibility won’t be very good.”
To date, there have been seven full-scale, multi-agency ground searches since the Middlebury Police Department began its missing person investigation on Feb. 11, many of which were hampered by deep snow.
Additionally, Middlebury police and the Vermont Outdoor Guide Association have conducted more than a dozen smaller-scale searches, most recently through wooded areas that were snow-bound until last week.
Search teams have used thermal imaging equipment, ground-penetrating radar, a helicopter and 13 air-scenting dogs, and more than 32 organizations have provided technical, logistical and staffing support to the Middlebury police, who over the first seven weeks of the investigation logged more than 3,000 staff hours on the case.
Last week the Addison County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) searched private residential areas along the eastern side of the college campus, including South Street and Weybridge Street. Searchers looked through sheds, garages, wooded and open areas and hedgerows, but found nothing.
CERT co-director Lucky Diamond, whose team has been involved since the investigation began, said the morale among his members remains high and hopeful.
“You have to understand the people who do this type of thing like to be involved, they like to help… They’re still really up for it and they’re still enthusiastic,” he said. “They want closure just like the parents want closure.”
For Garza’s mother, Natalie, the waiting isn’t getting any easier.
Her younger son, Damon, flew in from Albuquerque, N.M., a few weeks ago, and recently enrolled in Mary Hogan Elementary School. Having him near is a comfort, she said.
At the start of the investigation Natalie was certain her son didn’t just walk off campus, and as search after search turn up nothing on the college campus, her conviction grows stronger.
“He wasn’t leaving a party, he wasn’t looking for another party, I’ve always felt that,” she said on Wednesday. “I don’t want to come across as saying anything negative against the police, because they’re the ones out looking for him. But I knew how urgent it was in the first few days to really not assume that Nick walked out. I knew that time was the most important thing. It’s been 64 days. I was worried from the beginning that this was going to become a cold case. The likelihood of finding my son alive every day is going down.”
Garza was last seen leaving a residence hall on Feb. 5, but the investigation didn’t begin until five days later. Now more than two months into the investigation, hope, she said, is hard to come by.
“It’s a struggle. It’s a conscious effort I make every day.”
As rescue workers dropped their cameras into the river Wednesday morning, Natalie was wary of answering the phone.
“I don’t know if I want to get a call from them telling me they’ve found my son’s body,” she said. “At the same time the not knowing is unbearable.”