April 23, 2018
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What it’s like to be the first called when someone goes missing in Maine waters

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff
Updated:

TENANTS HARBOR, Maine — It’s around 10:30 p.m. A fierce blizzard has just blasted Maine’s coast and Marine Patrol Sgt. Matthew Talbot gets a call.

A clammer is missing in Long Cove.

It’s dark, it’s bitterly cold — below zero — and the wind is howling. But a family is panicked and it’s up to the Marine Patrol to either bring them the good news they hope to hear or, at the very least, devastating closure.

Talbot dispatches Marine Patrol officers to the scene, picks up a 20-foot aluminum skiff in Rockland and navigates the snow drifts coming up over the fields along Route 131 to get to the remote search scene on the St. George peninsula.

With the help of other agencies, crews search through the night finding nothing but an empty skiff. Unless the missing man somehow made it to shore, the odds of finding him alive fall by the minute.

But finding a body is preferable to the alternative: having to leave the search unresolved.

Marine Patrol searchers spend the next three days on the water. The cove ices up around them as the “feels like” temperature dips to negative 28 on the coldest day of the search.

The Coast Guard has left. Volunteers offer to help the Marine Patrol, but they need guidance.

The searchers are exhausting all of their resources. Sgt. Robert Beal doesn’t want to leave the family without answers, but he knows they need better conditions to recover the man’s body.

On day four, those conditions — and closure — are found.

‘So much going on’

With Maine’s diverse and vast coastal waters, these searches are among the most dynamic tasks Marine Patrol officers take on. Throughout the search, field sergeants act as supervisors, searchers, consolers and communicators to the family, the public and the media. It’s law-enforcement triage.

“There is so much going on,” Talbot said. “It doesn’t matter how many of them you have done, they all present differently and they all play out differently. Some [searches] are resolved in an hour, others are unresolved.”

Establishing a community network

The Jan. 4 search in Long Cove for the missing man, Paul Benner, was the first search-and-rescue operation for Talbot and Beal this year.

After four days of battling brutal cold and a completely iced-over cove, searchers found Benner’s body in about 10 to 15 feet of water made accessible after local fishermen volunteered to break ice in the cove.

The Marine Patrol, Maine’s oldest law enforcement agency, assists in about 30 to 40 search-and-rescue operations in Maine’s coastal waters every year, working with the U.S. Coast Guard, state and local police, fire departments, as well as just locals who volunteer to help find neighbors.

Aside from search and rescue, Marine Patrol — the law enforcement division of the Department of Marine Resources — is charged with enforcing regulations and laws pertaining to the state’s marine resources. Beal called it coastal community policing.

The agency breaks the coast into two divisions, which are each split into three districts. Beal is the field sergeant for District 2, which runs from Freeport to Bremen. Talbot is the field sergeant for District 3, which runs from Waldoboro to Belfast.

Each sergeant manages six field officers who patrol their areas daily, talking with local fishermen and curating a wide network of knowledge about their district.

In emergency search-and-rescue situations, these community ties show their worth. While technically the Coast Guard serves as lead agency in coastal water searches, Beal and Talbot said that the agencies know what strengths the other can bring to a search. While the Coast Guard can deploy helicopters and larger vessels, knowledge of individual coves and communities is a huge asset unique to Marine Patrol.

“It’s the Marine Patrol’s strongest asset, hands down,” Beal said.

This was evident in the search for Benner in Long Cove, an area not suited for large vessels due to its relatively shallow waters and dynamic bottom. Beal said that throughout the search, they “relied heavily” on locals for their knowledge of the cove and how best to navigate it.

While Talbot was working to get Marine Patrol boats on the scene as the search for Benner began, a private individual with a boat went into the cove with Marine Patrol Officer Matt Wyman and located Benner’s skiff.

“Those situations bring people together. People want to help. They want to do what they can,” Talbot said. “Whether it’s bringing hot coffee down, to providing a boat or to getting underway, [or] providing local knowledge. People are willing to step up.”

Racing time and nature

In terms of location and size, Long Cove is a favorable place to conduct a search ― small and sheltered with a limited current. If weather conditions were fair, odds of finding a missing person would be high.

But during last month’s search, favorable conditions were nowhere to be found.

Benner went missing in the cove just as a blizzard, bringing strong winds and snow, exited the state. The snow made conducting perimeter searches difficult due to drifts. The temperatures throughout the weekend were some of the coldest Maine has seen this winter, icing over the cove and making the use of sonar technology impossible.

Those factors complicated an already stiff challenge.

“In addition to weather considerations, we’re dealing with upwards of a 10-foot tidal flux. [It’s] an area that has ledges, and rocks and mud flats that [are] exposed at one point, and in six hours, that might be completely underwater and that is constantly changing,” Talbot said.

Pulling together and coordinating assets, such as search crews composed of multiple agencies and a variety of vessels and equipment, falls on the shoulders of a field sergeant.

Tidal conditions and shallow waters can restrict the size of a search boat to a mere 20-foot skiff with a depth-finder, as was the case in Long Cove. These smaller boats don’t come with the heated-cabin luxuries of a larger vessel, or technology such as chart plotters or radar.

Human elements vs. the elements

In those circumstances, it’s just the officers and the elements. But after a search has gone on in trying conditions without success for a couple days, field sergeants have to make tough decisions about using their resources to their best potential.

“When you have a core group of five or six officers that are dealing with this search and they’re the same guys who are going to have to come out the next day, at some point you have to manage the resources that you have in order to complete the best search, or conduct the best search that you can conduct,” Talbot said.

After two full days of searching without finding Benner, Beal said they had used all the assets they could in the frozen conditions. They needed warmer temperatures to free up the ice and make the use of a side-scan sonar device possible, which they were finally able to do on the fourth day of the search.

But explaining why the search has to momentarily — or permanently — stop is a hard thing to do.

“It’s not an easy thing, to have daylight and to look out toward the cove and to try to articulate why there is not much more you can do at that point,” Beal said. “They’re missing a loved one and there is nothing else beyond that to them, and quite frankly, to us as well.”

Delivering devastating news

Beal joined the Marine Patrol in 2005 after a career in commercial fishing. He said he didn’t join law enforcement to bust down doors, he’d rather serve as a line of communication for families who are dealing with possibly one of the worst moments of their lives.

They’re not easy conversations, but it’s essential to keep the family in the loop the entire time, however devastating the outcome.

“There is nothing more important,” Beal said. But still, “the conversations suck.”

Providing a sense of resolution is what Beal and Talbot hope they can bring to family in a search-and-rescue situation. If they can’t give them the relief of saying their loved one was found alive, they at least hope they can give them the closure of saying the body was found.

The alternative — to have to suspend a search without resolution — is never easy to confront.

“As tough as it is to go to somebody’s parents, to somebody’s spouse, to somebody’s kids and tell them that you’ve recovered their loved one, that they’re gone, it’s probably more difficult [to say] we have exhausted our resources and our ability to locate him,” Talbot said. “That’s tough to say.”

Given the vastness of Maine’s coastal waters, if someone goes overboard 20 miles offshore, they know the odds of finding that individual are not high, Beal said.

How do Talbot and Beal handle being the bearer of such news?

“It’s an understanding that you kind of bring to the table when you sign up to do this line of work,” Beal said.

After a tough search, Talbot said all you can do is rely on the people who went through that experience with you or have gone through similar circumstances. But unfortunate endings are something Marine Patrol officers know will happen from time to time.

It’s a reality that they try to present to aspiring Marine Patrol officers. When you sign up, it’s signing up for a lifestyle, Beal said.

He and his wife often take separate cars if they’re traveling too far from home because he could be called to an emergency at any time.

Even when it’s their day off, it’s hard to leave work behind when someone is missing, as Talbot experienced during the search for Benner when he handed over the lead to Beal, who was the field sergeant working that weekend.

“Yes, I went off that weekend, but we were in communication the whole time,” Talbot said. “Even when [your] phone isn’t ringing, your mind is still there. It’s like leaving something undone on your desk.”

They could go months without another call like this, Beal said, or they could get three in one night.

But no matter the circumstances or the time or the conditions, they’ll respond with urgency and diligence ― exhausting all of their assets to bring closure to a trying experience for all involved.

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