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Special Report: Steve Fossett
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Steve Fossett Special Report: The Vanishing
What went wrong in the record-setting search for Steve Fossett? 
Text and photograph by James Vlahos 
Photo: Nevada desert

Lyon County volunteers and one of their dogs continue their fruitless search for Fossett.

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<< Back   |   Page 5 of 5

Too Few Boots
On my last day in Nevada I drove up a dirt road toward Mud Springs Canyon and met a prospector for the local Borealis Mine. He declined to provide his name—talk spreads quickly in Mineral County—but he shared his opinions liberally. He knew from scouting work for the mine that the mountains nearby had steep, narrow, and tree-cloaked canyons a thousand or more feet deep. They couldn't be adequately scoped from the air, and many could be accessed only on foot. The search teams, he accurately noted, rarely strayed from their 4x4s. "I know this country, and when I saw them come through, I had to laugh," he said. "Just because you're search and rescue doesn't mean you know how to find someone."

The criticism was harsh and somewhat unfair. The search area for Fossett was so vast that planes, helicopters, trucks, and ATVs were essential. The searchers I met were deeply knowledgeable about the terrain and committed to finding Fossett. But—and there's no delicate way to put this—physical fitness didn't seem to be a priority for many of them. They were passionate about hunting, fishing, and ATVing, but they weren't backcountry types. These were traditional search and rescue operations, managed by county sheriffs' departments, not hard-core wilderness teams, the kind you find in the country's marquee national parks.

This hurt the effort. Here I stood in the area pinpointed by the investigation's two best clues, the radar tag and the eyewitness. It was rugged terrain, the sort that is particularly adept at keeping its secrets. And it was obvious that it hadn't been adequately searched. In the past month some of the most advanced technologies in the history of search and rescue had aided the quest. Maybe what was needed was a lot more boots on dirt.
The Search Unending
"They're going to find him on a mountainside," said John Kugler, an old friend of Fossett's, the day after he disappeared. "He's going to be hungry and want some good food." Another close friend, Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson, wrote in Time magazine that "it is hard to say goodbye to a true American hero when a part of me can't help thinking he will still walk out of that harsh and unforgiving desert that encompassed so much of what he loved about the great outdoors."

People around the world, and not just those who knew Fossett personally, wanted the pilot to be found, even as the odds of survival plummeted. They wanted him to turn up late for lunch, dusty but otherwise okay. "People don't like when their heroes vanish without a trace," says Ric Gillespie, author of Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance. "It offends the senses. Everybody expects a happy ending to the search."

After I returned home from Nevada, I called Gary Derks. We talked through a few details of the case, and then I made the mistake of asking him to confirm that the air search to find Fossett had been called off.

"Suspended," he interrupted to say. "Suspended. There's a big difference." He paused to let me absorb his words. "As additional information comes forward, the search will no doubt be resumed."

Continue Reading:
Page 1: The Vanishing >>

Page 2: A Khaki Abyss >>

Page 3: White Noise >>

Page 4: A Final Flight >>

Page 5: Too Few Boots >>

Cover: Adventure magazine

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