Father’s Day 2006 – Bringing Mark Home
By Tom Dragoon
Father’s Day, June 18, 2006 was unlike any other since the birth of my son, Mark, on June 6, 1977. I had made only one request for that special day from a group of volunteers numbering over 300 strong who had been working non-stop since June 5th. On that day the Ausable River had claimed Mark’s life and sent the lives of his family and friends into a complete frenzy, at first hoping to find him alive, later surrendering to the task of bringing his body home for closure.
When you finally accept the fate that your child will never be coming home alive, the only goal a parent has is to hold their child one more time before saying goodbye. That was the goal that I sought for Father’s Day – to be able to hold him, tell him I loved him, and then to say goodbye. The feeling of complete helplessness was so overwhelming as we waited for the river to give up our son’s body, only the strength of the multitude of family members, friends, co-workers, and dedicated professional rescue workers was our crutch to help us to our goal.
You never realize the need for the services of swift water rescue workers until you are in the middle of this type of unimaginable disaster, until it is too late and your loved one is gone. Our family was very fortunate in that the accident happened in the little village of Keeseville, New York. One man, Keeseville Volunteer Fire Department (KVFD) Chief Lenny Martin, had the foresight to anticipate the need for an Adirondack Mountain Swift Water Rescue Team and had struggled to meet this need on the extremely limited funds the poor Adirondack Village could raise. Many of the members of the Rescue Squad had to buy the necessary equipment out of their own personal funds. Much of the equipment was borrowed or loaned to the volunteers of KVFD, and training was demanding.
As luck would have it, Chief Martin and KVFD were on the scene of Mark’s accident within minutes of the rescue call coming into the station and they stood with our family for ten long days of search and rescue that later became a recovery mission. The gifted leadership of Chief Martin pulled together several Local, State, and Federal professional search and rescue groups from the northern Adirondack region, with one goal in mind, to find Mark.
After the initial search had not yielded the results we sought and the professionals had to scale back their efforts, a group of family and friends, as well as my co-workers from the Federal Law enforcement community, SARNAK Search and Rescue, and complete strangers shouldered the load to find Mark. That group of volunteers later became known as Mark’s Magic, The Band of Gypsies that were identified by their bright yellow safety shirts bearing their logo.
Ten days of intense dawn to well past dusk searching finally delivered our goal by reuniting Mark and his family when the SARNAK volunteers recovered his body and brought him home. I would spend Father’s Day with my son one last time.
Hopefully you will never need the love and support of family, friends, co-workers, professionals, and strangers like we did, but if you do, pray that you can assemble the team we were fortunate enough to be blessed with. Unfortunately the highly specialized training and equipment necessary to perform this dangerous search and rescue mission is not high on the priority list of those making the budgeting decisions of our emergency responders. The dedication to training, practicing, and executing these highly skilled missions is very demanding on the volunteers stepping up to serve the public and all too often under appreciated until disaster strikes. When you need them just where will you find them?
So as another Father’s Day approaches and I am left with the memories of a much loved son and the heroes that brought him back to me, would you please join me in singing the praises for those who give so much to the field of swift water rescue. I owe so much to Chief Martin, KVDF, and the Band of Gypsies – more than I could ever hope to repay in my lifetime. I will never forget all they did for my son and my family that June in 2006, and I pray that I can find the way to thank them for their unconditional act of humanity and kindness. They are all truly heroes in my book, a tribute to all that makes America the great nation it is.
May God bless and protect them in their duties.
Happy Father’s Day, one and all.
* * *
Editor’s note: According to local news reports, 28-year-old Mark T. Dragoon went missing in a whitewater rafting accident on June 5, 2006, one day before his 29th birthday. He was recovered from the Ausable River on June 15, 2006, by a “band of devoted volunteers.” At about 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Mark’s body was located, ending an 11-day search that was “hampered at times by heavy rains and high water.” Earlier in the day, every bridge from Keeseville to Lake Champlain had spotters, with many of them wearing neon yellow shirts that read “Mark’s Magic Band of Gypsies,” watching the river in what had become a well-organized search.