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How the search for one grieving mother challenged local agencies 

Ksenia Quiros went missing on Wednesday, April 15. The 45-year-old Russian native was distraught over the death of her son, Alex, an Air Force Academy cadet who had stabbed himself 28 times in his dorm room on April 2.

Quiros' husband, Jose, realized his wife was missing when he returned to their Colorado Springs home from work that day and found her gone, along with a red 1998 Dodge pickup.

On the couple's nightstand, he found her birth certificate, marriage paperwork and passports. She'd also left behind her purse and wallet, credit cards and money, he told police.

The search mission for Quiros topped newscasts. Winter storms moved in, and as the passing hours turned into days, her disappearance began to befuddle both the community and searchers.

Finally, on April 18, two hikers found Mrs. Quiros' frozen body not far from Point Sublime, near North Cheyenne Cañon.

Now, official reports of the incident obtained by the Independent are shedding light on the actions taken by local agencies over the course of Quiros' disappearance, including those of the Colorado Springs Fire and Police departments, which employed tools ranging from volunteers to telephone records.

The reports outline the obstacles searchers faced: wind, snow and a lack of specific clues. Efforts by the Fire Department, which led the search, didn't begin until 10 a.m. or later for three consecutive days, at least three-and-a-half hours after sunrise. In addition, a disagreement between agencies emerged over a request for federal aviation resources.

El Paso County Search and Rescue — whose members are specially trained and equipped to find people amid rocky terrain and inclement weather — was deployed just twice during the four-day mission.

While there were no apparent missteps that can be directly linked to the failure to find Ksenia Quiros alive, a deeper look behind the scenes of the search could serve to underscore possible weaknesses in a response system that is most effective when agencies closely collaborate in saving human lives.

Jose Quiros called 911 at 5:45 p.m. on April 15 to report his wife missing, and filed a police report at 7 p.m. He then joined family and friends to look for her in the Stratton Open Space on the city's southwest side, where he'd found the Dodge pickup parked at the La Veta Way trailhead lot. He suspected his wife was at the open space, the police report says, because he'd taken Ksenia, an avid hiker and runner, there just two days earlier.

At 9:35 p.m., he contacted police again saying he "feared she was in danger of hurting herself," according to the police report. Seventeen or 18 years earlier, he told police, Ksenia was found wandering in New York and later was admitted to a mental health facility. He also pointed out that she was particularly mournful due to "the overwhelming amount of sympathy cards" pouring in after her son's death, an El Paso County Coroner's Office report notes.

Police notified the Fire Department and El Paso County Search and Rescue.

The first Fire Department units — two dirt bikes and a brush truck from Station 13 at 1475 Cresta Road — arrived at the La Veta Way trailhead at 10:14 p.m., duty reports show, just minutes after the department was notified by police.

At 10:18 p.m., an engine from Station 5, home to the high-angle rescue team at 2830 W. Colorado Ave., appeared and "staged ... to provide technical rescue in case subject was located," notes the fire duty report.

Fire Battalion Chief Russell Renck arrived at the trailhead at 10:29 p.m. and assumed command. Reports show about 11 firefighters, including Renck, were on the scene that first night.

At the same time, the Fire Department requested assistance from El Paso County Search and Rescue, which responded with 20 searchers and two scent dogs, which sniffed Quiros' nightgown for a lead scent. By 11:20 p.m., Search and Rescue crews were on the trails, but windy conditions made it difficult for the dogs to pick up a scent.

According to reports from both police and Search and Rescue member Mel Druelinger, the police "pinged" Quiros' cell phone at 12:47 a.m., leading searchers to The Broadmoor's south golf course, although the effort was in vain.

Renck called off the search at 2:46 a.m. due to darkness and worsening "weather conditions," fire and police reports show, while Search and Rescue finished its assigned task and decamped at about 4 a.m., approximately two-and-a-half hours before sunrise.

First to the scene the next morning, Thursday, at 9:58 a.m. was Battalion Chief Randy Royal. "Air support for fly overs was also contacted through OEM [Office of Emergency Management] but could not fly and were grounded due to the weather. This option will be reevaluated on Friday and may be utilized," Royal wrote in his report.

In the next hour, up to 15 firefighters arrived, including heavy rescue, three dirt bikes, diving equipment and a public information officer. Firefighters searched reservoirs using sonar and motored on the dirt bikes over trails west to Gold Camp Road and elsewhere.

Police obtained a call history of Quiros' cell phone at 11 a.m., which revealed the phone's last reported location, at 10:13 a.m. on Wednesday, "was within the City of Colorado Springs and no where near where her vehicle or residence is located."

During the Thursday search, police officers checked the bus terminal and airport, and delved deeper into Ksenia's phone call history, which rendered "no useful information related to the search," the police report says.

The Fire Department ended its search Thursday at 5:13 p.m., records show.

"All crews returned inservice [back to stations] with a plan of continuing the search on Friday if more information became available or the weather cleared up to allow other resources to be involved," Royal noted in his report.

Search and Rescue wasn't called Thursday "due to lack of any further definitive information," Royal added.

News outlets reported that firefighters would not resume the search on Friday due to a lack of new clues, which prompted a group of volunteers to organize a freelance operation.

When authorities learned that a citizen had spotted Quiros the previous day, Wednesday, in the open space, the Fire Department decided to search on Friday.

About a dozen firefighters were dispatched on Friday, and Battalion Chief Renck was the first to arrive, at 11:02 a.m., followed shortly after by one engine. Another engine pulled in hours later, at 4:30 p.m. They both left at different times, around 6:45 p.m., with the last firefighters leaving around 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol and a multi-mission aircraft with heat-sensing equipment flew over the open space Friday afternoon. At 1:45 p.m., the Fire Department called on Search and Rescue, asking searchers to survey Jones Park and tunnels along Gold Camp Road. SAR member Tim Hayden, who described "heavy new snow" in his report, requested a Flight for Life helicopter to airlift two teams there. The helicopter shuttled the first team at 3:25 p.m. and the second at 4:03, notes Hayden's report.

All told, 25 Search and Rescue personnel, including one dog team, took part Friday, finishing their assignment at 9:30 p.m.

The sun rose at approximately 6:19 on the morning of Saturday, April 18, and at 11:08 a.m. firefighters resumed their efforts. Forty-five minutes earlier, however, police had learned that Quiros' frozen body had been found by the two hikers, "in the ravine, about half way up the hill, a fair distance from any sort of designated trail," the police report says.

"It was in an area that had several old vehicles that appeared to have driven off of Gold Camp Rd.," the report adds. "There was a cross and memorial near our location where it appeared someone had died before."

The Fire Department's high-angle rescue team recovered the body.

Druelinger, a member of the all-volunteer Search and Rescue unit for more than 30 years, was in charge of the unit's first call-out late Wednesday and took cues from the city, because the search area was located within the city limits. "It was Springs Fire's mission," Druelinger says in an interview. "We don't operate in the city unless we are requested."

He says his team performed the duties assigned — searching trails within the open space. Asked if it's common to suspend a search due to darkness, Druelinger says, "Certainly, we are reluctant to end the search if there was any possibility [of finding the person]. On the other hand, there certainly are circumstances [when] you have no leads, no place to go."

Search and Rescue wasn't called upon as the Fire Department searched for Quiros Thursday. "We fully expected to be searching," Druelinger says, "but we were not the lead on the mission. It would not be appropriate for us to insert ourselves, but we were certainly ready as always to respond to any request."

He points out that El Paso County Search and Rescue is certified by the Mountain Rescue Association, having been trained and tested in an array of complex strategies, including avalanche rescue, winter medical, technical rock scree evacuations and search techniques. Team training is extensive and ongoing, he says.

According to Hayden, the team responds to more than 100 calls a year. Druelinger notes Search and Rescue personnel are schooled in interview techniques to elicit insight from family and friends which might aid in the search.

Asked if Search and Rescue helped with interviews in the Quiros case, he says, "To my knowledge, that was not the case."

Police detectives, who also are trained in those tasks, conducted those interviews, according to the Fire Department.

Another aspect of the Search and Rescue team, which has 65 members, is its network of assistance. "If we have a major search and we need additional personnel and it's an extended search ... we may need additional resources, so we certainly have that through the Colorado Search and Rescue Board," Druelinger says.

Mountain Rescue Association lists 18 SAR Rocky Mountain region teams as members on its website, including four teams within 100 miles of Colorado Springs: Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (Boulder), Douglas County Search and Rescue (Castle Rock), Chaffee County North Search and Rescue (Buena Vista) and Park County Search and Rescue (Fairplay). Teller County also has a search and rescue team, though it's not MRA certified.

None was called for the Quiros search.

"I think they [firefighters] did what they felt was best," Druelinger says, "so I will not second-guess them. I wouldn't speculate what we would have done if we had been in charge. I know everyone was trying their very best to find this woman and to assist her in any way they could."

News reports of the search caught the attention of Teller County Search and Rescue member Gayle Humm, a retired Army colonel and doctor who used to serve with El Paso County Search and Rescue. "I've done many, many searches through the night," she says. "Stopping at night? And not using resources available? We never do that. We always search at night."

Colorado Search and Rescue Board president Paul "Woody" Woodward raises a more penetrating question:

Should firefighters have been in charge of the search for Ksenia Quiros?

Woodward says mountainous searches are "very specialized" and notes that many fire departments "do not have the same type of specialized training" as search and rescue squads.

That's immaterial to Jose Quiros. "To me, the efforts were very good," he says in an interview. "They had dogs, bikes, motorcycles and all kinds of people up on that mountain that night. They looked the next couple days as well. You could see the planes overhead. As far as I could tell, they did work hard. It was extraordinarily cold that night. You want them to keep working, but I don't know if the dogs could take any more. It was so cold that night, I don't know she was alive that night."

In written responses to questions from the Independent, the Colorado Springs Fire Department says it assumed command, along with the Police Department, because the Stratton Open Space lies wholly within city limits — where both departments have jurisdiction. Fire officials also say that personnel at Stations 5 and 13 are trained in "many different rescue training scenarios that involve trail, ice and rock rescue skills." That training includes the use of motorcycles to search trails and rope rescue techniques.

As for ending the search when it did the first day, it's "standard procedure with the majority of searches in rough terrain to halt a search when factors are not conducive to the safety of rescuers," fire officials say.

During the Quiros search, it was dark and rainy, the terrain was rough, and searchers were tired, which all led to the department's decision to postpone efforts, they add.

The department also defends its intermittent approach to the search, saying, "Each time a tip or lead was uncovered, all agencies involved worked diligently to investigate that new information in an effort to locate Mrs. Quiros. The leads that were received on the second day pointed to a search of the reservoir. The CSFD dive team was deployed to the reservoir. This dive team search did not require the assistance of our partner agencies. Ongoing rain and snow conditions hampered the use of search dogs by covering up any scent."

If the search area had gone beyond the city limits — and if weather and terrain were conducive to round-the-clock operations — other agencies would have been asked to help, fire officials point out. "In this case the CSFD had the skill sets, the equipment and the resources that were required to follow up on the leads we had received on the second day." They also say there weren't "any major problems with the response to this incident" and that the "coordinated effort ... was very evident."

Despite all going as planned, the Fire Department says it's conducting an after action review.

Disagreement exists over whether protocols were followed during the search for Quiros. Such incidents within the county, including inside Colorado Springs city limits, require the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, not the Colorado Springs Fire Department, to activate Search and Rescue. Druelinger says his deployment involved a "joint command" of both Search and Rescue and Fire Department members, which took orders from the Fire Department.

Hayden, with 27 years of search experience, says the Fire Department called him asking for help the third day, Friday, which is substantiated in his report with a notation involving his request for an airlift.

"Ordinarily, we get a page from the Sheriff's Office," he says in an interview, which "opens" a deployment call. "In this case, when I received a request from the Fire Department, I should have called dispatch and opened a call. When I called dispatch about a [Flight for Life] flight, they reminded me I hadn't opened a call. So I had to open one."

However, the glitch didn't impact the airlift's response, he says.

Woodward, though, explains why search and rescue agencies operate under the authority of the sheriff. For one, a Colorado statute makes the sheriff responsible for all search and rescue operations within the sheriff's jurisdiction. Second, worker compensation coverage doesn't cover injured search and rescue members unless they are performing their duty under the sheriff's authority.

The chain of deployment for search and rescue resources is established by both state and federal authorities, he says.

Woodward points out that Gordon Brenner, with the city's Office of Emergency Management, side-stepped the sheriff on Thursday night when he called for aviation and other federal resources from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

Woodward says he got a phone call after midnight from the AFRCC, seeking to confirm that federal resources had been requested for El Paso County. Woodward then called Hayden, who told him Search and Rescue was not involved at that time. The aviation asset request was denied, although after going through proper channels, aircraft were approved and flew over Stratton Open Space on Friday afternoon.

"The request by the Colorado Springs Fire Department did not follow the signed memorandum of agreement between the state of Colorado and the Search and Rescue coordinator for the Inland Region in support of the National Search and Rescue Plan," Woodward says. "Legally, they have no authority to call federal assets. The Fire Department did not go through the sheriff. The bottom line is El Paso Search and Rescue or any search and rescue team should not operate unless they are doing so under the authority of the sheriff. If a search and rescue team is involved in a joint mission with a fire department, they should work as a unified command. That's why this is all a problem."

Woodward, who coordinates roughly 42 well-trained teams, including the one in El Paso County, also notes that while "many fire departments ... like to get involved in search and rescue incidents, is it the proper thing to do? You'll find differences of opinions."

Asserting the city does have authority to contact the AFRCC directly, the Fire Department says it discussed mounting an aerial operation with state and federal agencies on Thursday, but flying wasn't feasible due to bad weather.

When the weather cleared on Friday, the department says, Brenner made the call to the AFRCC and was told aviation assets were available. Brenner then contacted the sheriff's office to "formally request authorization," Fire Department officials say in their statement, adding that "the process took no more than 5-7 minutes."

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, in an interview, says he wasn't aware Search and Rescue was called on only the first and third days of the search, noting that Cmdr. John Padgett, head of the sheriff's emergency services division, was on the scene for at least part of the search effort.

Elder believes incidents that require both the city and the county to take part underscore why the city and county Offices of Emergency Management should be combined — to assure that a response isn't subject to jurisdiction. In other words, to avoid a turf war.

"This is part of the reason why I don't agree we should have a separate Office of Emergency Management," he says.

And while Elder reports good relations between himself and city public safety leaders, he doesn't oversee the county's OEM anymore. Last year, county commissioners removed OEM from the Sheriff's Office and placed it under their purview, a move former Sheriff Terry Maketa called "illegal" and a "money grab."

"We have another layer of government involved now that is not necessary," Elder adds, "when we could have combined the city and county OEM into a regional unit that could have directed resources from a single component. All of those things [emergency resources] should be funneled through a single office that knows all the resources throughout the region and the next steps [required] when we need the next level of response. It was a mistake for the county to separate out the OEM."

County spokesman Dave Rose says OEM is, by statute, a commission duty and aside from first response includes readiness and recovery, prevention, and inter-agency coordination. Those functions, he says, require work by numerous county departments, including budget and finance, communications, parks, veterans services, human services and planning.

But Elder counters, "Now, if an event starts in the county, they [OEM] are going to coordinate outside the sheriff's office. We have to have a coordinated response [with other agencies]. We just have to convince the county [commissioners] of that."

It's impossible to know whether Ksenia Quiros could have been rescued. For one thing, it's not known how long she was conscious after ingesting what the coroner's report called a "toxic level" of diphenhydramine, commonly called antihistamine, which played a role in her death, along with hypothermia. In fact, no one knows when she ingested the drugs.

Deputy Coroner Leon Kelly says via email that the autopsy showed her blood contained an amount of antihistamine 56 times the level that would result from a normal dosage and that pill fragments were found in her stomach, meaning her body hadn't yet reached "peak drug level."

So it will remain a mystery how long Quiros lived after walking about three miles from the parking lot across the open space to the Point Sublime area, a trek that takes about an hour. There, she either lay down or fell. When found, her body was frozen and covered with snow.

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