Sonar search of Lake Billy Chinook unsuccessful

Searchers will continue to scan water for Madras man's body

New technology aids in search for Madras man

CULVER, Ore. - A special side-scan sonar system resumed its search at Lake Billy Chinook Saturday afternoon but did not find the body of a Madras farmer who apparently drowned trying to save his fatally injured son after a boating accident on Thursday.

Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins said repairs to the partly severed electrical cord that attaches a torpedo-shaped sonar device to the Klamath County boat took longer than expected, and it was back in the water around 12:30 p.m., trying to find Gene Harris, 73.

Late Saturday afternoon, Adkins said the search was being suspended, in terms of use of the sonar gear, but that the search on the surface will continue for the next few weeks, in hopes of finding Harris.

The special sonar unit was only put into use for about an hour on Friday before the problem arose, involving a horizontal cable that extends from the dock at the water-skiing course on the lake west of Culver.

Adkins said the search was especially close to home for many members of the community who know the family.

"Mark just got married in November," said Adkins. "His wife works in the DA's office, so I knew her really well. When you have to do a death notification to someone that close, it is very difficult."

The Klamath County Sheriff's Office boat and crew arrived Friday morning to aid in the search with their 5-foot-long sonar device, called a "torpedo" due to its shape, which is towed behind the boat and used to search deep into the lake, to its bottom.

A horizontal cable that extends from the dock "probably a half mile" for the water ski course, tying the ski buoys together, damaged the cord that powers the sonar unit, Adkins said.

"We didn't know there was a horizontal cable" in the water, the sheriff said, adding that the ski course operators would be removing about half of it so the search in that area can continue safely. A technician was en route from Klamath Falls to repair the cord.

The body of Mark Harris, 37, was recovered from the water shortly after the incident, reported around 11 a.m. Thursday on the Crooked River arm of the lake at Cove Palisades State Park, just above the bridge over the Crooked River, Adkins said.

An extensive search quickly began -- at first near the water's surface, then with divers from Deschutes County Sheriff's Search and Rescue -- for the father's body.

"I already warned Monica, that's the wife of Gene, I already warned her that this could drag on for a very long period of time," Adkins said. "And that's hard for a wife to take you know? You want closure but sometimes you just can't provide it."

The sonar device from Klamath County helped find Robert Neil Whitson, 53, a Redmond fisherman who also died in Lake Billy Chinook in July of 2009. His body was recovered 19 days after he went missing.

A man who saw part of the accident returned Friday to help searchers guide the sonar boat to the best area to search.

The sheriff said Harris's son, who was water skiing, was wearing a mini-wet suit but not a life jacket when his body was found with head and leg injuries. Adkins said they were as yet unsure if he died of those injuries or drowned.

Murky water kept crews busy and created challenges Thursday as they searched for any sign of Gene Harris's body.

Adkins said the farming father and son had traveled to the lake to get in some water skiing before they went to work, and that the son apparently was struck by either the boat or a ski after he fell into the water.

"Unfortunately, the visual depth of the water, it's maybe four or five feet deep," said sheriff's Det. Starla Green. "We can't see very far, because the water is so murky at this point."

Crews kept other boats away from the ski area, pushing them back and closing it off to the public.

For many people who were looking for a relaxing day on the lake, it was a reminder for them to be extra careful and remember the dangers the water can hold.

"The park ranger came up and told us to be really careful today because there was two fatalities," said visitor Becky Heinrick. "It's something that you definitely don't like to see."

And for police, who have seen these types of tragic situations in the past, they have a reminder for others who get in the water.

"Make sure you have a minimum of three people on your boat, one for a spotter and one for an operator," Green said. "That's basically the requirements for this body of water, is making sure you have three people in a boat at all times."

Authorities were interviewing witnesses to piece together what occurred. Adkins, who knew the two men personally, said he did not believe alcohol was involved in the tragedy.

Adkins said no one reported seeing where Mark Harris was skiing, but a witness reported seeing the father jump in the lake and his head bobbed up before disappearing.

The depth of water in the area being searched was not immediately known, but Adkins said the popular boating lake west of Culver is 110 feet deep at its deepest point. The divers were prepared to go about 50 feet down in their recovery effort, the sheriff added.

Adkins said the search effort was wrapping up for the night around 6 p.m. He said they would be back out searching the water on Friday morning, awaiting the sonar unit that will assist in the recovery effort.

The sheriff said the family had been notified and advised it could be a lengthy process.

Adkins said searchers ran a camera back and forth across the lake, looking for a sight to dive.

The sheriff's office had four rescue boats searching in the water Thursday, while Warm Springs tribal police and the state Parks and Recreation Department each also had a boat assisting in what was being called a recovery effort.

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