When Someone You Love is Missing in the Water
By Nancy J. Rigg
No agency tracks how many people go missing in the water per year, or what decision making standards and operating procedures are used to determine how to manage a search and recovery operation, how long to dedicate resources, and how and when to call in additional experts, including water cadaver dogs and side-scan sonar operators.
Because this is often a gray area of emergency response, when someone goes missing, the burden of mounting a recovery operation too often ends up in the hands of the grieving family after a brief, even perfunctory search is called off by the initial responding authorities. Many lakes in the United States have a dozen or more victims languishing at the bottom of them, for lack of better protocols and a greater commitment on the part of response agencies to help families reclaim loved ones who have drowned or somehow disappeared in a body of water.
Having someone missing in water is devastating for survivors – there is a limbo of uncertainty, and even though we may mourn the absence of our loved ones, and even though we may feel certain that they are deceased, it is difficult to mourn a death without proof, without the physical body recovered and identified. The legal tangle often compounds an already tragic situation, although with proper reports on the accident, a death certificate can sometimes be secured through the courts.
There are many wonderful dive-recovery teams and other resources out there, with dedicated personnel who train hard and do everything they can to help families in distress. I do not want to give the impression that no one cares. The problem is that whether a family gets the help it needs or not depends on where and in what kind of water their loved one goes missing. To my knowledge, there are no national standards for water search and recovery, although U.S. Park Service Search and Rescue protocols do not allow a case to be “closed” until a body is recovered.
Cold inland water can preserve human remains. If a freshwater lake or river is cold and deep enough, a victim may or may not resurface, and may languish on the bottom for many years. Bodies have been recovered from cold, deep water after ten, fifteen, even fifty years. Technology, with side-scan sonar and other devices, and the aid of specially trained water cadaver dogs and dive-recovery experts, can strengthen the possibility of having someone be recovered even after many, many years. But because families are usually told by overburdened local authorities, “Sorry, there is nothing else to be done to recover your loved one,” without alternative information provided, most families quit looking for their loved ones and simply struggle to come to terms with having them be “missing and presumed dead.”
Surviving family members may find that this unique missing-in-water limbo makes it extremely difficult for them to recover – financially, professionally, spiritually, and emotionally. The uncertainty is heartrending and unending, making it a challenge to focus on any of life’s other pursuits…
More needs to be done to aid in recovery operations quickly and safely. Not just for the dignity of the deceased, but for the healthy recovery of deeply traumatized families and communities…
After successfully saving the life of a ten-year old boy who fell into the Los Angeles River in 1980, my 29-year old fiancé, Earl Higgins, was swept thirty miles downstream in turbulent, roiling, floodwater. It took nine long and agonizing months for his body to be recovered, in part because at the time, no one would mount a search and recovery operation. No agency had jurisdiction over the Los Angeles Flood Control maze for swiftwater rescue operations, let alone search and recovery. No one would look for Earl, so for months and months, I searched the entire length of river myself, from his point of entry to the Harbor in Long Beach. It was a lonely and very frustrating time.
Although I grieved Earl’s absence deeply, for me, it truly was the serendipitous recovery of his body nine months later, during a harbor dredging operation, that allowed me to fully honor and mourn his death, and start to come to terms with the profound changes in my life.
When Earl’s body was finally recovered… it was like he had died twice. But at least there was certainty, legal proof, and closure.
I share this excerpt from my grief journal, on behalf of all families who are dealing with this difficult kind of loss and trauma. I wrote it three years after Earl disappeared, after I was finally allowed to view the forensic photos taken of his physical remains for the Coroner’s inquiry:
1983, Los Angeles:
The body. They say that it is merely a “vehicle”, which our spirit occupies during its journey through life. Yet it goes without saying that it is through this body that we experience life — all the sensations, the emotions, the struggles and joys, the psycho-physical existence. And it is through the body that we know one another.
Today I viewed photographs that were taken of Earl in the examination room at the Coroner’s Office, three years and one month ago today. Two color photos of his body lying on a gurney. Human remains against cold, blue metal, near a green tiled wall, above the while linoleum floor.
My first and overwhelming sensation was profoundly deep sorrow. A sorrow beyond tears or weeping. I was saddened silent. There it was. Front view. Back view. I say “it”, because that which I gazed upon was not “Earl.” No. And yet it was Earl! Even in that state of extreme decomposition, I recognized him. Vague aspects here and there. The overall shape and size. The reminiscence of such a fine, perfect form.
I studied the photos in silence for a long, long time. And although he seemed anxious, Dr. Frederick, my trauma counselor, had enough sense to leave me alone. When I finally spoke to him, my words sounded hollow and distant. I’m not sure what I said… something reassuring, so that he knew we had made the right choice to view these photos.
Although there were similarities to what I had envisioned in my mind’s eye those nine months when Earl’s body was missing, to my surprise, that which was pictured here was even worse than what I had envisioned. I always thought that I had envisioned a worse horror than what was, but no…
I flashed on the keys that had remained with Earl’s body all those months in the water. The colors. And the smell. Earl’s body looked like those keys, corroded, discolored. In certain places on the chest, the arms, the back, and the head, bone was exposed. White. So clean and white.
The overall shape was distorted, the chest and abdominal area slightly distended, the arms and legs shrunken. There was no close-up and in the photo the head wasn’t very clear. But there was no face, no hair. Clean and white was the jawbone beneath the teeth. I could see through to the spinal column supporting the skull.
Three ribs on the right side were exposed, as was the long bone of the right arm. And the cranium, as seen from the back view, formed a clean, ivory-colored, perfectly shaped cap. No toes. Only discolored stumps at the end of the legs. I tried to find fingers, but could barely distinguish arms resting against the chest.
The fleshy parts… therein was the horror. And a paradoxically haunting beauty. In full view, the remains looked like newly mined malachite — copper mineral embedded in its native granite. Blues and greens, shades of gray, and black. A mottled effect overall. In the image in my mind’s eye, I had never envisioned the many colors. I had always seen Earl’s form in a single, ghostly hue.
The body looked mummified. Like a statue. But not in statuesque perfection. A Giacommetti, not a Rodin. Shock provided distance and my study was somewhat removed, emotionally, in an attempt to keep my heart from bursting right then and there. Nancy the Forensic Scientist made her thorough study of the evidence.
There was no doubt that this was Earl’s body. The destruction of the face, and his back, which looked charred, as though the process of cremation had been started then abruptly stopped. The chest, legs, arms, everything, oh, so agonizing to see. As I struggled to relate all this visual information back to the autopsy report, I found myself increasingly thankful that Dr. Bucklin was the coroner who performed the autopsy — a man of great compassion and abiding respect for the human body, which he quietly said is “not a man-made thing.”
Haunting beauty. Again that thought emerged and floated across the whirling surface of my mind. I’m not certain how to explain it. But I kept drifting back to those summers we spent high in the Rocky Mountains when I was a kid growing up in Colorado. We lived in an old ghost town called Summitville. Like gazing at one of the more dilapidated old houses, there was such a haunting beauty in this unoccupied home. A serenity and peace embracing it. Invisibly shrouding it. A sweet melancholy aura.
I looked at the “house” that once held Earl’s spirit and recalled happier hours, when the candles in the windows burned brightly, when there was a welcoming fire dancing in the hearth, when laughter rumbled forth from the joyous depths of the life that filled it once, not so long ago. Visions of moments remembered.
Now this house lies quiet and empty. The beams that gave it such strong and lofty support are exposed now. The walls are peeling. Oh, sweet home. The hearth is cold. The candles gone. Everything decayed. Gone. Gone.
And yet, in these remains, there is no bitterness. No remorse. Just silence and calm and infinite stillness.
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