Gene and Sandy Ralston have worked for everyone from the FBI to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and NASA recovering bodies located under water. As Doug Horner reports at The Guardian, with specialized sonar equipment and patience, they’ve found the bodies of over 100 people who’ve succumbed to every manner of death from accidental drowning to premeditated murder. Their work is critical, bringing much-needed closure to families, some of whom have waited decades to say goodbye to their loved ones long after law enforcement has given up the search.
The Ralstons are now in their 70s and spend most of every year travelling to search sites or on the water, looking for bodies. They have clocked more than 31,000 miles on their motorhome in a single year. In almost two decades of searching, they have found 120 victims of drowning in lakes and rivers across the US and Canada. They are considered among the best underwater search and recovery specialists in North America, and have worked for agencies from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to Nasa (hunting for the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on atmospheric entry in February 2003, killing all seven crew members). They have helped solve crimes and generations-old mysteries.
Gene and Sandy are modest, unassuming people, but bring a relentlessness to their often monotonous work. They call it “mowing the lawn” – towing their sonar equipment back and forth through the water, piloting their boat in slow, overlapping strips. Typically, a corpse descends through water with its chest facing the surface. When the feet hit the bottom, the knees buckle and the body spills on to its back, arms outstretched. That is the shape the Ralstons usually look for with their sonar. They knew a murder victim would look different, though. “We call it ‘packaged’ – tied up and weighted,” Gene said.
Gene and Sandy are anomalies in the world of search and rescue. They pursue this work full-time, but they work for free, only charging travel expenses. They take a scientist’s methodical approach to everything they do.
For the families and friends, coping with the loss of a loved one who has drowned without a trace is a special kind of pain. “The human brain can’t let go unless there is evidence of transformation from life to death,” says Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and a family therapist, who has spent the last half-century researching what it means to reunite families with the bodies of the deceased. Without recovering a body, a haunting anguish takes the place of grief and eventual closure. Some people report catching glimpses of their lost loved ones in everyday situations – in the aisles of the supermarket, say – for years after they go missing. “You need to see that the person is no longer breathing,” Boss said. “Or you need to see the bones.”