By Kim Brooks, Express Editor
After about 13 hours of searching with hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials, a 13-year-old male camper with severe autism was located safe and sound after straying from Camp Courageous of Iowa.
On Monday evening, July 22, at approximately 7:15 p.m., the camper was reported missing. He was last seen walking on a trail headed to a campsite. Camp Director Charlie Becker said he was assigned to two camp counselors.
“Their attention was diverted for just a moment and he was gone,” Becker recalled from the scene of events.
He said as with any situation like this, the camp’s action emergency plan was put into place. Becker said Stephen Fasnacht, assistant program director, spearheads the procedure. All campers and counselors and camp staff reported to the main lodge for a headcount. They then started searching in vehicles and buildings for the lost camper. They also activated the camp’s cell phone alert system.
“This is the first time we had to use the alert system for a missing camper,” Becker said. The info that appears on someone’s cell phone is a picture and profile of the camper, with a basic description of what he/she looks like.
Becker said as the evening went on that day, it started getting darker as a storm was moving into the area. After about a half hour, they notified the Monticello Fire Department and the Jones County Sheriff’s Department of the missing camper.
“We knew we needed massive amounts of help,” said Becker.
He said by about 10 p.m., around 200 or so people showed up to assist in the search efforts.
Camp Courageous is located outside of city limits; however, some Monticello Police Officers did assist as well. Becker said Corey Roberts led the Jones County Emergency Response Team (JCERT) in organizing the search and rescue of the lost camper. He said Roberts devised a grid system in order to cover more ground.
“Corey did an exceptional job at organizing everything,” commented Becker, also giving kudos to John Klein, Jones County Park Ranger, and Brenda Leonard, Jones County Emergency Management.
“From start to finish, these people stayed on the river all night long,” Becker said of their efforts.
He said with the rugged terrain surrounding the camp, it took longer to cover the search area.
“The tactical group is very familiar with this area,” said Becker.
By about 3 a.m., with boats already on the Maquoketa River, articles of clothing belonging to the missing camper were located along the water.
Becker added that when they called and notified his grandmother, the boy’s legal guardian, she informed them that her grandson likes water. This led to a larger search in and around the river area.
At 5 a.m. the camp released news of the missing camper to local TV news stations. Becker said Monticello Airport Manager Paul Elmegreen contacted Becker after seeing the news that morning.
“He knew we needed help, so he immediately got in a plane,” said Becker of Elmegreen’s efforts.
Becker said Elmegreen followed the river to Canton, when they spotted someone along a sandbar. As luck would have it, the person they saw was the missing camper. He was located at around 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday, July 23.
Becker said he was transported by Monticello Ambulance to Jones Regional Medical Center and then to St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids as a precaution. He did not sustain life-threatening injuries.
“He’s now home and doing fine,” said Becker of the camper who lives in north central Iowa.
Had the atmosphere been colder that night, the boy’s injuries could have been a lot worse as he floated in the river.
“We can’t thank the emergency personnel in Jones County enough,” Becker said of their service. “They are a great team of people and we’re fortunate to be here in Jones County with such dedicated people.”
With so much time that passed and the turn of events, this situation could have been a lot worse.
Of his efforts in taking to the skies to help locate the missing camper, Elmegreen, who flew up with local pilot Dan Kromminga, said he did not do this to be a hero.
“For some reason I just got up early that morning and happened to see it on the news,” Elmegreen said. “I thought I might be of some help.”
He said he flew up at around 7 a.m. By that time, the Iowa Highway Patrol was already in the area, flying overhead as well.
Because of the overnight storm and the length of time the camper had been missing, Elmegreen was honest in saying he didn’t know if they’d find him at all.
In flying towards Canton, Elmegreen said, “If he (the camper) would have made it this far, it’d be a miracle.”
They flew over the river a few times before spotting someone down on a sandbar.
“Low and behold, someone was down there,” Elmegreen recalled with joy.
He said he contacted the Highway Patrol via their radio frequency and notified them of what they saw. Elmegreen said they asked if the person they spotted was wearing any clothing, a sure sign it might be the camper.
Elmegreen said they kept circling the river waiting for Highway Patrol to fly over, keeping an eye on the missing camper. They saw him run in and out of the woods and jump back into the river during that time.
Once Elmegreen got back to Monticello, he notified Becker of the situation.
“We were just in the right place at the right time,” Elmegreen said of the whole situation. He said it was quite a miracle. “I was delighted to be of some assistance.”
He said he didn’t realize the immense number of people searching for this lost camper.
Running the Monticello Regional Airport, Elmegreen said this is just something they do for the community. “It was nothing heroic.”
Camp Courageous wishes to thank all those who gave of their time to locate the missing camper: Monticello Fire Department, Monticello Police Department, Monticello Ambulance Service, Jones County Sheriff’s Department, Jones County Conservation, JCERT, Jones County Emergency Management, Iowa State Patrol, Cascade Police, Cascade Fire Department, Clinton EMA including Connie Heath and Bill and Lois Hall with search and rescue dogs, Clinton County Conservation, Dubuque Fire, Northern Iowa Cert, Iowa Canine Cert Team, Iowa Task Force One, Camp counselors, volunteers and general public.