Eighteen divers scoured the murky bottom of the Clark Fork River Thursday, but couldn’t find the body of a Kootenai County firefighter presumed drowned the day before.
“We’ve got to find him so the family can have some closure,” said Kootenai County Sgt. Dan Soumas. “He was one of our firefighters and it’s a terrible thing.”
Soumas brought five divers and two boats to help Bonner County rescue teams search for Lt. Richard Brown.
The 35-year-old was duck hunting east of Sandpoint Wednesday with two other Kootenai County firefighters. The three were boating across the river when their overloaded 12-foot rowboat capsized.
Two of the hunters, Bradley Belcomt, 25, and Dustin Thurman, 23, made an exhausting 75-yard swim to an island. Brown drowned after his hip-waders filled with water and pulled him under.
Belcomt and Thurman were back at the river Thursday. They were still distraught over their friend’s death and declined to talk.
The two spent the day directing six boats and the army of divers from Bonner, Boundary and Kootenai counties and several from Montana to where Brown disappeared in the water.
Two dogs that can sniff out submerged bodies also were ferried around the river, their snouts hanging over the edge of the boat.
The dive teams, able to see only 2 feet in the muddy, 36-degree water, searched a half-mile of river bottom. They found Brown’s shotgun and a tackle box full of ammunition near where the boat capsized.
The search was called off about 2 p.m. when the upstream Cabinet Gorge Dam had to release water it was holding back to slow the river’s current.
Bonner and Kootenai county divers will be back today for one last effort, saying they don’t think Brown’s body has been carried into Lake Pend Oreille.
“We still believe he is in the channel. I don’t think the current was strong enough to move him too far from where he went under,” said Kootenai County Sgt. Ward Crawford.
Brown’s death hit Kootenai County firefighters hard.
“He was looked up to by everybody,” said Chief Don Donart. “We’re like a big family here.”
One of only 10 paid workers out of a 40-person force, Brown was among the most experienced. Colleagues recalled Aug. 30, when Brown calmed 18-year-old Monica Milem while rescuers worked to free her from the overturned Volkswagen she’d been trapped in for 15 hours.
“He was very compassionate, very dedicated to his work,” said Lt. Terry Switzer.
“His whole life was the fire service,” Donart said.
Brown collected old fire extinguishers and other antique firefighting memorabilia. Brown had construction experience and was training to do building safety inspections.
Brown’s personality fit the sporadic, unpredictable nature of his work, friends said.
“Sometimes you sit at a desk, other times you’re hopping out on a call,” Switzer said. “There’s a lot of things to do. He liked that.”
Even Brown’s life outside work was as varied as his job.
Raised on a farm, Brown drove and repaired tractors. As an adult, he fell in love with computers, and spent his free time playing video games.
He was married and had a daughter and enjoyed woodworking. He wouldn’t hesitate to visit a friend to help split wood.
“He gave 190 percent on everything he did,” Donart said.
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