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Calling Off The Search: The Emotional Toll Of Search And Rescue

Members of the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team assist with a search for a missing skier after a 2005 avalanche in Park City. The skier was found dead days later.
Shaun Roundy
Members of the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team assist with a search for a missing skier after a 2005 avalanche in Park City. The skier was found dead days later.

A search-and-rescue mission for landslide victims in a remote village in northeastern Afghanistan has been called off. Officials fear there's no hope for reaching the nearly 2,000 people who were buried Friday by mud and rock.

In Washington, the active search for victims of another mudslide was called off last week after more than a month of searching. Two bodies still haven't been found.

And as the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 goes into a third month, families and friends of passengers are yearning for a sense of closure.

Rescue workers often yearn for it as well. But as much as everyone wants closure, sometimes officials have to make the gut-wrenching call that it's time to give up.

Shaun Roundy is a member of the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team. He has been on search missions that were stopped before everyone was found.

"When that happens, then every time you're in that vicinity, you just wonder, where is that person and when will we find them?" Roundy says.

His team is called out to comb snowy mountains for hikers after avalanches, to find lost or injured people in Utah's caves, rivers and lakes. Sometimes — because of weather, manpower or resources — they just can't keep looking.

"When the probability of finding someone drops so low and when everyone has already expended so much of their life in the process — searching and searching, for days and weeks — there comes a point where you have to say we have to cut our losses for now," Roundy says.

Roundy has compiled a book of short stories about his experiences. After more than 14 years with the team, he has become familiar with that sense of not knowing.

"There's a lack of that satisfaction that you're looking for as you search, you're hoping for so intensely all this time. There's a sense of disappointment that you haven't succeeded yet," Roundy says. "And the awareness that the survivors of these people — their family and friends and neighbors — that they're left hanging, and we hate to see that happen."

In a deadly avalanche in Utah in 2003, three people were lost. One body was recovered within a few days; one was found several weeks later. But then the active search was called off.

"Once we'd covered it so many times, there was really nothing we could do until the snow melted," Roundy says. They had crisscrossed the avalanche multiple times, using search dogs and ground-penetrating radar to map the layers of ice and tree branches.

Nearly six months passed before the last body was recovered. Eventually, a passerby found the body when he saw a glove poking out of the snow.

"After something goes wrong or we bring out a fatality, it does have an emotional toll and we need to be careful," Roundy says. "So, often we'll have a critical incident stress debriefing afterward just to make sure people have the opportunity to vent."

When an active search is halted, Roundy says, most of the time family members and loved ones are understanding. Workers have to put their safety first.

"That's what all emergency services are trained in," Roundy says, "because otherwise you're not around to save other people in the future."

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