Volunteers help rescuers cope with unsuccessful operation

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UTAH COUNTY -- The family of a man who died in Nutty Putty Cave in Utah County last week memorialized him this weekend. But the Utah County rescuers who struggled unsuccessfully to save him may have lingering memories they would rather forget.

The body of John Jones of Stansbury Park will remain in the cave, and the cave will be closed off. It's an end for the cave, but the mental and emotional turmoil for the searchers may just be starting.

Last Wednesday, Utah County Search and Rescue volunteers worked for hours to free Jones from a tight passage in the Nutty Putty Cave.

State Sen. John Valentine was part of the team. "I've been involved with search and rescue for 29 years in Utah County," says Valentine. "I have to tell you, this has probably been the toughest that I have personally done."

Jones died late Wednesday after being stuck in a crevice for almost 28 hours. Valentine called it an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved.

"We were so close," says Valentine. "We were almost there. We almost had him out, and so the roller coaster effect just made it even tougher than a normal search."

Saturday, more than 50 volunteer rescuers showed up for a Critical Incident Stress Management debriefing. Volunteer mental health specialists and peers gave them a chance to open up about their feelings after the unsuccessful rescue attempt.

Before this program was created 22 years ago, rescuers often self-medicated with drugs and alcohol.

The clinical director of the state-funded Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program, Dick Southwick, says the recognition of how to deal with the stress has come a long way in the last two decades. "The attitude after a tough incident was, you suck it up and go on," he says.

Many search and rescue volunteers go on autopilot during the operation, but feel a flood of emotions afterward.

"They tend to be guilt prone because they're perfectionistic," says Southwick. "After it's over it's like, 'Jeez, if I'd only done this, or if I'd only thought about this, and they beat themselves up."

Southwick says CISM debriefings are not group therapy, rather an educational process. CISM is all volunteers: 18 mental health professionals and about 75 peers from different agencies, like fire, police, emergency room workers, search and rescue. In most debriefings, there are three peers and one mental health professional.

"Giving them skills in terms of how to deal with the trauma that they work with," says Southwick.

In this case, Valentine says the Jones family helped ease some of the pain by being so supportive of the rescue crews.

"Both the public statements and the private statements from the Jones family have meant everything to the search and rescue people," says Valentine.

CISM will hold two more debriefings this week for Salt Lake agencies that responded to the cave operation.

E-mail: jboal@ksl.com


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