INNISFAIL – Lorraine Vandenbosch is back with her family in Didsbury following her 72-hour missing person case that involved dozens of search and rescue heroes who worked tirelessly from sunrise to sunset to find her.
The 78-year-old woman – cold, hungry, tired and afflicted with dementia – was found halfway up a steep embankment in the Dickson Trout Pond area of Gleniffer Lake at about 9:30 a.m. on June 1.
She was alive, and in good spirits; leaving her rescuers grateful.
“We were extremely relieved, great to have a successful and happy outcome. You think about the relief that you're able to provide a family and letting them know you found their loved one,” said RCMP Cpl. Kaylin Makeechak, a tactical flight officer who first spotted Vandenbosch on the embankment while on helicopter patrol with pilot Special Const. Al Miller.
“Overall, there was hard work by the team; all the search and rescue and personnel working for three-and-a-half days and leading up to locating her successfully,” he added. “We couldn't have done it without their hard work.”
Vandenbosch was first reported missing from Dickson Point Campground at about 9:30 a.m. on May 29.
Innisfail RCMP was the primary agency assigned to the case.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Ian Ihme, the detachment commander, was tasked to find Vandenbosch with a team of four general duty RCMP officers, one police dog team, two RCMP pilots, two conservation officers and three Red Deer County peace officers.
However, he gives credit to the search and rescue teams from Red Deer County, Sundre and Rocky Mountain House as the main contributors to the operation’s success.
In total, up to 50 emergency responders were working on the case, not counting volunteers on horseback and those on ATVs.
However, by the early morning hours of June 1, their tireless efforts to find the vulnerable elderly woman were not yielding results.
Hope was beginning to slip away.
But then came an urgent call at about 9:30 a.m. that shocked the veteran Mountie.
“At first it was disbelief, because by Thursday morning I was getting fairly worried because we were getting to the point we would be unsuccessful,” said Ihme. “The weather had turned cold. It was very cold, and it was miserable that Thursday morning.
“When the helicopter said, ‘we found your lady.’ At first I thought that meant they had found her deceased,” he said. “And then when they said, ‘no, she's up and walking around’ I thought maybe this is not the right person.
“But then they said, ‘no, this is her for sure; this is her’ and then it was just overwhelming joy.”
Ihme said when Vandenbosch arrived by helicopter, she was smiling and “kind of laughing” with her rescuers and happy to see her family.
However, Ihme noted she was cold, in a state of hypothermia and severely dehydrated.
“She looked very frail. Very cold. Very tired,” said Ihme, adding she was then taken to hospital for further treatment.
Minutes earlier, Vandenbosch was seen by the helicopter duo of Makeechak and Miller sitting on a steep embankment at the far end of the trout pond, around a curve and near a forest.
She was holding what appeared to be a branch from either a bush or a tree.
“It was hard to tell exactly. It could have been a root. It could have been a branch,” said Miller. “It was visible. She had both hands on it; holding on to it for security. It’s a bit of a slope there.”
Miller then circled around the area to make an assessment for a rescue operation.
“From that point we switched to plan mode; how to get the rescuers and paramedics into her and how we're going to eventually get her out,” said Miller, who later landed his helicopter for a ground assessment and to create a safety plan. “That did involve the two of us making the area safe; free from hazards for the helicopter and for the people on the ground because as you can appreciate, there's a lot of airflow and turbulence from the helicopter.
“The branches are whipping around so I didn't want them hitting the individual who's already gone through four days of turmoil.”
Makeechak and Miller were joined by other six emergency rescue responders, including paramedics. They walked into the spot where Vandenbosch was located.
She was precariously perched on steep terrain.
“There's only really room for maybe one or two people to be up there with her, and the most important person was the paramedic,” said Miller, who soon went back to his helicopter to extract Vandenbosch.
Miller gently hovered over the rescue site as Makeechak helped load the elderly woman into the safe confines of the helicopter; the last stage of a multi-step process to rescue a tired and confused senior citizen.
Immediately following Vandenbosch’s rescue, Ihme realized the site was not that far from the command post.
In fact, it was an area search teams had earlier concentrated on, and one of the first places police dogs probed, as had ground searchers, drones and planes.
Ihme said it was apparent she had been on the move, but it was unknown where she had moved from.
“We could have covered an area and she could have come back into it and left it, because she would have been fairly disorientated,” he said.
From a brief conversation with the elderly woman, Ihme said it was apparent she did not seem to have an understanding as to how long she had been missing.
“Her dementia is definitely one of the core features of why all this happened. The family is going to be discussing it with her a little bit more to try to get some details out of it,” said Ihme. “Brief discussions with her didn't really give us any more clues as to where she may have gone to.
“It didn't really seem like she had a good understanding, and whether that was from dementia or just the medical state; like the severe dehydration and hypothermia, and it's a fairly traumatic event too,” added Ihme.
He said there will be a follow-up talk with the family this week to find out if they have learned anything more about the circumstances of their loved one’s disappearance.
Ihme said it would not only be helpful in understanding her disappearance but for future missing cases as well.
“Like, what were her feelings? What were her perceptions? Did she know people were looking for her?,’ Ihme wondered. “Those are things we're going to be looking into; to try to really gain knowledge from the scenario, so that next time something happens we're able to respond more efficiently.”