Tragically close

In aftermath of massive search, officials explain what happened from their perspective

FOR A week, lost mushroom pickers Michael Devlin Sabo and Ike Murray camped out on a hillside 500 metres above Fiddler Creek, the south boundary of an approximately 10 square kilometre zone being scoured by scores of searchers looking for the pair.

Their location up a densely forested hillside was not included in the search area, but the section of Fiddler Creek below was.

Three Canadian Rangers, part of a contingent sent to sweep the back of Fiddler Creek, came through that section on Sept. 28 making noise and looking for visual and auditory cues but didn’t spot the two men who had been missing since Sept. 22.

These and other details are emerging as officials look back on what became one of the largest searches in the area in decades.

It began when Murray, 26, and Sabo, 32, failed to meet up with Sabo’s younger brother Connor after a day of mushroom picking in the Lorne Creek area on the west side of the Skeena River northeast of Terrace on Sept. 22.

The official search began Sept. 23 but was halted Sept. 29 when no sign of the pair was found. An unofficial search then began.

Murray emerged from the bush onto CN train tracks near where Fiddler Creek runs into the Skeena River the afternoon of Oct. 7 where he was found by a CN worker and subsequently taken to Mills Memorial Hospital.

Information he provided to police and search and rescue officials led them to recover the body of Sabo in the morning of Oct. 9.

“Devlin soon lost strength to continue,” said an RCMP report. “Ike stayed with Devlin till his death then managed to hike for two more days and finally hit the railroad tracks where he was shortly discovered by CN maintenance workers.”

During interviews conducted at Mills Memorial Hospital where Murray was admitted, he told search and rescue officials and police that he and Sabo could see helicopters during the week of the official search.

“Every day the helicopter flew—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday—helicopters went there and they confirmed they saw the helicopter, they saw helicopters below them, they saw helicopters at eye level, and helicopters above them,” said Dave Jephson from Terrace Search and Rescue.

The pair were unable to signal any of the helicopters and despite having a fire going for the first week, they were still not spotted.

In the rainy weather, the mountain was consistently covered in patches of cloud. Visibility and audibility were low in the thick woods.

Once the helicopters stopped coming after the first week at the end of the official search, Sabo and Murray decided to push on along Fiddler Creek.

Their route, however, took them further up Fiddler Creek, away from where the official search area was and away from where the unofficial search was going on.

It was at a camp near a gravel bar where they eventually stopped that Sabo passed away and when Murray decided to begin walking again.

“Not a specific injury but from complete fatigue from being in the bush,” Rabut said, adding that the cold, wet weather would have been incredibly tough to endure.

The minimum temperature averaged below 5 degrees Celsius during the period with highs averaging around 10 degrees. It rained at least 13 out of the 16 days.

In the location where they camped by the creek they didn’t have a fire, and according to Jephson, “during the day they didn’t get sun because the mountain was so tall. They had to work their way to an island to get sun, and then they would work their way back to the treed area.”

Jephson said search and rescue officials early on established a search area bounded by the Skeena River, a high hilly range further back and by Fiddler and Lorne creeks.

They also considered the possibility Sabo and Murray became disoriented on their mushroom hunt and moved up Fiddler Creek to the west instead of down the creek to the Skeena where they were to meet up with Connor Sabo.

“The search area was identified that we believed they were in, an area between Fiddler and Lorne using the mountain and the river as the barriers. It was discussed that they could walk around Lorne or Fiddler so search and rescue in conjunction with the authorities, realizing they could leave that area, we did send some resources to search those areas,” said Jephson.

Heading into the Sept. 28-29 weekend of the official search, a 25 member unit of the Canadian Rangers, an all volunteer Canadian Armed Forces militia, was diverted from a previously-planned outdoor exercise to help in the search.

Three Rangers worked their way down Fiddler Creek and three down Lorne Creek.

“It was a very dense forest and we had a very specific task given to us by Search and Rescue and a very specific area to search. We did report that we had found a fire and mushrooms, way lower down,” said Ranger Chris Gair of the search.

“The Rangers did the task they were asked to do, to search an area on Fiddler and Lorne Creek and there was nobody in the area they searched. They missed no clues,” added Jephson.

“I am just amazed that he found his way out. I know one thing that was said at the hospital was that he found the Ranger tape and it helped him find his way out,” said Gair of Murray finding brightly coloured tape used by searchers to designate an area that’s already been searched.

The official search from Sept. 23 to Sept. 29 resulted in 3,600 hours of ground search and five days of helicopter reconnaissance.

On the largest day of the search, Sept. 28, 150 people were involved.

CN says it will recognize its employee, Laurie Bouvier, who found Murray while working on the company tracks near Fiddler Creek.

Terrace Search and Rescue is having an information meeting for new members Wed. Oct. 23 at 4524 Greig Ave. beginning at 7 p.m. Its next ground search and rescue training program begins Monday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Terrace fire hall on Eby. St. Email for more information.