6 minutes
Body of September drowning victim recovered by ‘amazing’ technology

In December 21-27, 2006 issue

    LAKE CUMBERLAND - After hours of driving the more than 2,000 miles to get here, Gene and Sandy Ralston got up Monday, loaded and set up special equipment, and within 6 minutes of beginning their search had found the body of Shane Pierce. Dozens of searchers had unsuccessfully hunted for the body of the 37-year-old Indiana man on numerous occasions since Pierce fell out of his boat at high speed on September 8.

    Their near-instant success in locating the body wasn't a matter of luck; it was the use of new sonar technology.  The Ralstons are biologists and work as environmental consultants, but they serve their fellow man by recovering drowning victims all around the country. For nothing more than their out-of-pocket expenses, this couple drove from Idaho over the weekend to find Pierce.

    Roger Pierce, Shane's father, had learned of the couple from a friend who had found them through the internet, and for Roger it was something of a prayer answered.  "What did I want for Christmas?" Roger asked. "I wanted to find my dead son."  He said the thought of his son lying there somewhere on the cold bottom of the lake was the first thing in his mind every time he woke up.  "Friday was his birthday," the bereaved father added.

    The Ralstons, of Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue, came in at the Pierces' request to pick up the search for their son.  Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Officer Tony Wright took them to the two spots in the lake where he found the boat and where witnesses said they saw Pierce flip out of the side of his boat the day before this year's Lake Cumberland Poker Run.  Wright had recorded the GPS coordinates of the location during the first attempts to find him.

    The Ralstons fed that data into their on-board GPS system, established a search grid, and lowered the specially designed side-scanning sonar device -- called a "fish" -- into the lake.

    Six minutes into the first line of the pattern they had a clear image of a body on the mud bottom 91 feet below the surface.  The team returned to the dock to retrieve the Ralston's remotely operated robotic submersible. It was decided that it would be quicker to use the robotic arm on the submersible to bring Pierce to the surface than to contact and wait for divers to assemble and make the cold-water dive.

    Once the equipment was assembled and the boat was again moored in the proper place, Gene Ralston piloted the machine to where Pierce lay, while Sandy played out the control lines. The on-board camera allowed him to grasp Pierce's wrist with a robotic grappling arm on the device, and Sandy hauled them both gently to the surface.

    Coroner Larry Skaggs, H.M.Bottom and the Fish & Wildlife officers took him aboard their boat and Pierce took his last boat ride to the Jamestown Marina. Bottom, the county's emergency services director, said that the help from Idaho was greatly appreciated and he praised the skill of the Ralstons and their generosity in being willing to travel the long distance to find Pierce.  He added that he'll be looking for some funding to purchase a similar setup for the county, given the difficulty of locating drowning victims in Lake Cumberland.

    Wright said he has prevailed on the couple to search for two other bodies he said are in the lake, those of Jack LeRoy Scovy and Michael E. Buck. Scovy, who was 43 at the time, reportedly drowned June 19, 2000 at Guffey Creek Cove when he fell out of the boat he and two other men were in, and the boa t ran over him.  The other unrecovered body is that of then 26-year-old Michael E. Buck, from Waynesburg, Ky., who reportedly went into the water in Wolf Creek near Pleasant Hill, July 22, 1985.
                         Times Journal photo by Greg Wells

    The Idaho couple have already consented to attempt to locate the two missing men. Sandy said it was divine guidance that helped them locate Pierce so quickly. This was the third fastest they have ever located anyone.  Gene recounted the story of one recovery that could have been a rescue if the victim's friends had called in sooner. He said they had located the first of three drowning victims they were looking for in Lake Powell when the ranger they were with received the call of a drowning. Ralston said they went over to see if they could help and located the man immediately, and the ranger jumped in to pull him to the surface. Unfortunately the victim's friends had waited 45 minutes before calling in the drowning.

    The trail of the other two men they will be looking for in Lake Cumberland, though, may be tougher to pick up since they have been underwater for much longer and there was not as much information about exactly where they went into the water.  However, they have located bodies that have been down for as long as 100 years, and things that have gone into the water with no witnesses. They helped search for parts of NASA's Space Shuttle that exploded on re-entry.

    Roger Pierce and his wife Joann said they appreciated all the effort put into locating their son by the local rescue squad members here and those from other counties. They especially remarked on the dedication and feeling offered by Wright and Bottom.

Reprinted by permission of Greg Wells, Managing Editor, The Times Journal, Russell Springs, Kentucky