Search and rescue teams thrive on helping others

February 12, 2011 12:41:36 AM PST
On "20/20" Friday night, ABC brought you the dramatic story of the Kim family. They are the Bay Area parents who got lost in a blizzard in Oregon with their two young children after taking a wrong turn. Even with the tragic death of James Kim, the family expressed gratitude for the efforts of search and rescue volunteers. Those volunteers often give up a lot of their own time to save lives.

A nighttime search and rescue training mission is proof that passion has nothing to do with pay.

"We have to practice and we train in all times of day, night, weather because that's when we have to do our work," said search and rescue volunteer Jackie Tubis.

Across the state some 1,000 search and rescue volunteers often hone their skills after putting in time at their day jobs.

"The people on this team range from sheet metal workers to teachers to EMTs and paramedics, to CEOs," said search and rescue volunteer director Jeff Thomas.

Santa Clara County's Search and Rescue Team has 56 volunteers. Retired high tech employee Jim Cole has been part of the unit for nearly two decades.

"I do it for the people. There is no pay involved in it, just flat out for the people. I love helping people," said Cole.

In most counties the sheriff's department oversees the volunteer search and rescue. The Santa Clara County volunteer team operates on a lean budget of $12,000 a year, most of it from grants and donations.

The searchers actually pay for their own uniforms, gas and some equipment. Valuable search and rescue canines are all provided at no cost to the taxpayer.

"They live with us. The training is very extensive, two to three times a week. We spend a lot of time together and we certify together," said Kris Black, a volunteer canine trainer.

The volunteer experience is both challenging and rewarding. Santa Clara County's Search and Rescue Team goes out on anywhere from six to 15 real missions a year. The assignments range from trying to find a lost hiker to searching for a missing child. Those are often the most difficult. Jim Cole can't forget the faces of Hasanni Campbell, Xiana Fairchild and especially Sandra Cantu. Sandra was found dead in a suitcase.

"I was 75 feet from [Sandra] at one time. She was in a canal that I was near and I didn't see it because the water was still over the top of the suitcase," said Cole.

Even when the search ends with a tragic outcome as it did in the case of Sandra Cantu, the volunteers say they provide some measure of comfort.

"Even there, you realize you've accomplished something, you've at least brought closure to the family. You've brought them some end to a thing that might have gone on forever," said Thomas.

Search and rescue volunteers train in hopes their services aren't needed, but when they get the call, they will be ready.

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