BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
On Sunday I spent the better part of a half hour talking with the mom of a 15-year-old girl who has a broken neck and compressed vertabrate fracture as a result of a 4-wheeler accident last week. I’m not going to use their names, that’s not germaine to this conversation.
Two girls were injured in the accident. The other suffered serious head trauma when they were thrown from the vehicle just off Old Quarry Road sometime after 5 p.m June 30th. The girls were found at just minutes before midnight. Those two girls laid in a ditch unable to move due to their injuries, for at least five hours – probably closer to six.
Both girls are recovering at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Doctors say, according to mom, they are very, very lucky girls.
According to one of the mothers, the girls were riding a new four-wheeler that a father had recently purchased. A male friend had stayed back at the father’s house while the girls took the vehicle for a ride. After the girls hadn’t returned for an hour, the father took a ride to see if he could locate them. After several attempts and a couple hours had gone by, he notified the mother and law enforcement and a deputy were dispatched to the home. The mom notified the other girl’s mother and they got together with the deputy and questions were asked of the parents to determine if the kids would have run away or sneaked off somewhere.
“She wasn’t that type of girl,” mom says. “And the other girl has an 8 o’clock curfew and she doesn’t mess around with her mom. She does what she’s told. I knew this was something different and tried to tell the officer that.”
Mom said the deputy told her he would look in the area but couldn’t leave his vehicle, according to procedure. The mom asked the deputy to bring in extra help to find the child and the deputy contacted a supervisor who said the deputy could contact air support to see if they could help search the area. The deputy contacted Air Evac and was told that if the girls weren’t found by the morning they might be able to help, but are not insured for that type of rescue. The mother hit Facebook to try and gather as many volunteers as she could find to start looking for her lost daughter. Family and friends started looking for the missing girls.
At about 11 p.m. a different deputy arrived on rotation and began searching the area from his vehicle. At just minutes before midnight July 1, he found a path where it looked like the vehicle may have left the roadway. He grabbed a spotlight from the cruiser and looked in the area of the path and saw the ATV. Upon getting to the vehicle he found the girls about 15 feet away. Rescue efforts began from there. Helicopters were called to the scene but couldn’t land in the area due to no clearing. So they landed at FMCH and Great River Medical Center and the girls were transported in two ambulances to the heli-pads and then airlifted to Iowa City where they had to land at the airport and be transported again as the elevator was broken to the helipad at UIHC.
To say it was a traumatic accident for both families, that continues to unfold, is a tremendous understatement.
But what, if anything, could have been done different? The sheriff’s department runs typically with two deputies on patrol, and boots on the streets is something that Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber has been trying to increase. But as we look forward with pained gazes to the next incident, it’s imperative that we ask ourselves what we can do better.
As a county, do we have a responsibility to help in these situations? We certainly have the heart to do it. The same heart that goes out to these families when they think of their girls laying in a ditch for five hours with no medical help and a scant few trying to find them. The sheriff’s department can’t divert everyone to the scene without firm evidence that the girls are in danger…despite mom’s intuition, which was spot on.
The sheriff’s department has a new K9 unit that would have come in very handy, but his training isn’t complete and he wasn’t even in the department at the time of the accident. The state patrol has a search plane with infrared, but the girls were found before that air support would have arrived.
Another dog is planned for late fall or winter so a dog will be available for tracking day and night. Mom says that’s great for the department and may help with the next incident, but she feels her instincts were ignored by the department, specifically in getting more people to the scene to help.
“If this would have been an issue of an escaped convict, they would have all kinds of people and air support in a matter of minutes, but why not for these girls?”
The question is tough. Protocols and procedures dictate a certain measured response from law enforcement. But that measured response doesn’t have to apply to us as citizens.
I’ve been there, but had a much better outcome. My oldest daughter got lost while coming back from Fairfield. She had a cellphone. It went dead so her GPS went dead. She made a wrong turn and ended up down in the bottoms by Bonaparte and didn’t know how to get out. She was terrified. We were terrified. After an hour had passed since she was supposed to be home…10 p.m. I called 9-1-1 and gave a description of the car. I had family hit the roads to try and find her. A deputy found her and somehow she had just found the right road home so he followed her without pulling her over until she got to West Point. We were notified and I met her there. I’ll never forget the tears in my wife’s eyes as she said “Bring her home to me”as I left to find her.
How these families and friends must have been feeling at that time is not lost on me. We were lucky…they may feel lucky at this point but their ordeals are just beginning.
So what do we do?
We have a digital world. Facebook is second-by-second responsive and one of mom’s instincts was to hit social media for help. Our digital news outlet is second-by-second responsive as well. This community has set up neighborhood watches to help contain crime. Is there…in this hyper informative world- a way to set up a social media network, under very responsible hands, that can be put into action when someone needs help locating someone? Maybe at the direction of a deputy or law enforcement agency. When they deem that a family is desperate to locate someone, could this civil search group go into action?
Our county and our communities have limited resources. It’s hard to insinuate that the sheriff’s deputies weren’t following protocol and we have a very large county by comparison. A sheriff’s deputy found the girls. Would finding them any earlier have changed the medical conditions… its possible, but it’s a certainty that the fear and unknown would have been reduced.
I’m just thinking outside the box. What if there was a Lee County Civil Response Network, that people could sign up for and at the direction of the local law enforcement, one person could send out a call for help when people are missing. As the say on radio talk shows. “I’ll hang up now and listen for your responses.”