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Exhaustive search for teen takes toll on rescue workers

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After more than 10 hours of searching a flooded, fast-moving river for a missing teen, rescuers were so exhausted they needed help out of the water.

Members of the swift-water rescue team methodically walked back and forth between the State Road 252 bridge and the Big Blue River dam in Edinburgh, where five teens had gone over the day before. Seventeen-year-old Jason Moran was still missing. They needed to find him.

For hours, Bargersville Fire Department Training Chief Eric Funkhouser walked step by step in a line with seven other firefighters as the river current tried to sweep them away.

By sunset on Saturday, after walking more than 2 miles of the river on his second day of searching, they hadn’t found Moran — another disappointment, he said.

“Everyone down there that day was working themselves to exhaustion,” Funkhouser said. “There were guys in the water suits that had to be carried up the hill because they couldn’t walk themselves. But nobody was willing to quit, and the hardest part is shutting it down at night.”

The search started as a rescue on Friday afternoon when Moran hadn’t surfaced after going over the dam. He and four friends had gone swimming upstream of the dam, when water swept one of them over. The four boys followed to assist her.

Four teens got out; Moran was missing.

At dark on Friday, the search halted. Crews looked all day Saturday and still couldn’t find him, again stopping at dark. On Sunday, the water level in the river had dropped enough to allow divers to search close to the dam, where Moran was found.

The river search was physically exhausting but also mentally stressful for emergency workers who always strive to save a life, Franklin firefighter Nathan Long said. When the search went from a rescue to a recovery effort, the realization that the teen was likely dead was tough to accept, he said.

“We did as much as we could very swiftly as we could, because we know that minutes count. And then kind of the reality sets in that we’ve checked everything top-water wise and nothing came up. It’s very depressing. It’s somebody’s son or brother or family member out there, and we just want to make a difference,” Long said.

Long was in one of the boats quickly searching the river Friday, using poles to check under downed logs or areas where roots extend into the river to see if Moran might be trapped underneath.

Military helicopters from Camp Atterbury buzzed overhead, and searchers would rapidly check every item they found to try to decide if it was related to the teens, he said.

After the first three hours, responders were backing off the aggressive rescue operation, he said.

“It was very depressing because everybody that was out there wants to make a difference. Firefighters are built to save lives,” Long said.

Bargersville firefighters spent Friday evening setting up their rope systems in preparation to tether boats and rescuers for continuing the search Saturday, Funkhouser said.

By the end of the day, he was meeting with fellow firefighters to talk about what work would begin at 7 a.m. By then, they’d need to clean up their gear, pack water for the daytime heat, maybe get bug spray because of the nearby woods.

He headed home, spent a little time with his kids and tried to sleep as much as he could.

By Saturday morning, the water level of the river had come down a little bit but was still dangerous. Funkhouser and Franklin firefighter Jon Sears were part of the eight-man line sweeping back and forth across the riverbed.

They got as close as they could to the dangerous boil line where the teens had been trapped and starting walking from one bank side to the other, using their feet to feel around.

The current was still strong enough to knock a person off his feet, so the searchers had to try to stand against the rushing water with help of the tether teams downstream in boats and each other, Sears said. Not falling over is part of the struggle, while firefighters are wondering what will be underfoot in the next few feet. The ground was uneven and several pieces of slate had settled into the riverbed, he said.

“Your next step could be a big hole or a rock or you can find something. Every step you take you shuffle your feet and don’t know what’s underneath you,” Sears said.

Anything underfoot is a cause for immediate investigation, Funkhouser said. As they walked south of the bridge checking along the banks and through the riverbed, every item is thoroughly examined.

“That’s a high-pressure situation, and every piece of clothing you come to down the river, everything you see has a little more meaning. Could this be something he was wearing? Could this be something he had? You’re just trying to think how could this relate back,” Funkhouser said.

The search crews walked for miles down the river, stopping when they finally reached the bridge at Hendricks Ford Road with no sign of Moran.

Sears hadn’t noticed how physically rough the search was until they pulled him up on a boat to drive him back to the base camp. He started to cramp and his leg muscles were seizing up from the hours-long search.

But Sears’ mind was still racing. All he could hope for by the end of the day was a little better river conditions on Sunday to search again.

“There are so many different possibilities that play out in your head about the unknown. Where did we miss? Or hopefully maybe the water level will go down and maybe we’ll have better luck. Hopefully it doesn’t rain and all that’s on your side is hoping that the water level goes down a little,” Sears said.

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