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Volunteer couple from Idaho assisted in search efforts for missing scuba diver in Kelowna

Click to play video: 'Search for missing diver underway on Okanagan Lake' Search for missing diver underway on Okanagan Lake
Search crews returned to Okanagan Lake Sunday to look for a missing diver. The 52-year-old man failed to resurface while diving with a group. – May 16, 2021

An American couple renowned for recovering drowning victims in deep water assisted in the search efforts this week for an off-duty firefighter presumed drowned in Okanagan Lake.

Gene and Sandra Ralston, a married couple in their 70s from rural Idaho, made the trek to the Okanagan upon request from the victim’s family and colleagues.

Kamloops fire captain Brian Lannon failed to resurface after a recreational scuba diving excursion with three others near the William R. Bennett Bridge in Kelowna, B.C., on May 15.

Central Okanagan Search and Rescue (COSAR) and the RCMP’s underwater recovery team scoured the lake for 10 days before winding down the extensive search efforts.

Read more: Idaho couple pick up search for missing Calgary fisherman

Lannon’s colleague and friend, Alex Anderson, contacted the Ralstons on advice from the RCMP.

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“RCMP helped us get them through the border with an exemption from the COVID-19 quarantine requirements,” he told Global News.

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The Ralstons scour lakes with a specialized sonar system and are often contacted by families of drowning victims after official search efforts conclude without the body being located.

Gene Ralston said the pair have helped recover the bodies of 126 people over the past two decades across North America.

“I think our success is primarily because we are so persistent. We don’t like to give up on a search. We are retired and we don’t have a life of our own anymore so we have time that we can spend on a search,” he said.

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He said the Canadian border service agents at the U.S.-Canada border in British Columbia are familiar with the pair.

“Many of the agents recognize us before we ever get up to the gate and often say, ‘What are you here for now? What search are you here for now?’ So that really helps.”

When the Ralstons arrived in Kelowna, they obtained design drawings of the bridge to set up a grid search system parallel to the bridge cables using side-scan sonar.

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“It casts a beam of sound out to the side and it processes that into an aerial view, and any object that is lying on the bottom will have a shadow behind it, and you can tell a lot about what it is based on the shape of the shadow,” Ralston said.

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Anderson participated in Monday’s search, along with Lannon’s wife.

Read more: North Saskatchewan River search for suspected drowning victim now a recovery mission

“We searched for four hours navigating our way around the anchor cables for the bridge and Gene was explaining what he was seeing on the sonar,” he said.

The Ralstons were only one day into their independent search when a civilian spotted a scuba diver’s body floating on the surface south of the bridge.

“It was a person contracted to do bird control in the area of the bridge and they came across what they initially thought was a piece of wood floating in the water, and quickly realized that that was not the case and managed to secure what they found to a dock and wait for authorities to arrive,” Anderson said.

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It remains unclear what went wrong during the dive, and how Lannon died.

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“Until the coroner’s report is completed, we are all wondering what happened and for the family especially, that is a very hard thing to get your head around,” Anderson said.

He said the discovery of Lannon’s remains will bring some closure to his family.

“He had a tough exterior and he had high expectations and he wasn’t shy about letting those expectations be known, but he had a huge heart and he cared deeply about his family and his crew,” he said.

“Everybody is going to miss having him around.”

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