It is with a very heavy heart that I post this latest update for you, as for a third time as despite working our socks off; we have not found Blake nor any evidence of his presence in the river.
On the day we left for Chamonix I received an email saying the French police had got dogs coming to help them, but they were not water dogs and could not work off boats etc, so obviously I was panicking somewhat and very worried that we were going all that way to do...what? Anyway, as soon as we arrived we checked in with the police and it transpired that their translator had clearly got his negatives mixed up and the what they had meant to say was that the dogs would work in water etc. and they had come all the way from Paris just to do this. We arranged with the police to meet up at 8.0 am the following morning to have a briefing session and then start the search, again!
Over the next 2 days we were working with 2 of the only 3 dog handlers in the whole of France that work with these particular dogs and they brought 5 out of their 7 dogs with them. Basically the type of dog I am talking about is a dog that can work in water, off boats and river banks and is trained specifically to detect a body that has been missing for some time. The local police were very impressed with the fact that they had them there to help and told us that they had never before had these types of dogs/dog handlers in Chamonix! I have to say that I suspect the only reason they had been asked to help was because I had been endlessly pestering them about using the same sort of dogs that I had located in Holland and also in Northern Ireland. There are not many around!
Anyway, along with the dog handlers, 2 divers (with their boat,) and 4 local special police ( the ones who do the search and rescue,) we spent the first day thoroughly searching both sides of the river between Chamonix and the dam at Les Houches, including the filtration units. Since I was last in Chamonix in December, the gravel quarry people have dug out hundreds of tons of silt from under the over-hanging trees that we thought Blake could possibly be caught up in and they have also finished emptying the filtration units. When we spoke to the guy in charge he said he was mystified as they usually find people who have fallen in further upstream in those units.
Between Chamonix and Les Houches (the dam)
Silt removed from the river In a filtration unit Dogs & dog handlers working in the river
At the end of the day, after we had finished searching that area and considering the extensive searching that has taken place over the last 9 months, we all drew the conclusion that he could not possibly be there.
More pictures of sluice gates, filtration units and silt!
The police then told us about a body that had been seen twice in the river at Bonneville (about 50 Kilometers south of Chamonix,) on the 20th August! This is 12 days after he went missing. They had put divers into the river and the helicopter up at that time but despite a thorough search, nothing was found. The timing is about right for it to have been Blake, as the river was in full spate at the time and about 4 days after he disappeared the dam was lifted at Les Houches, so it is feasible that he have gone through then.
The next day we set off for Bonneville and with another extra 4 local police from there (the search party is now 12 strong,) we searched an area that they thought a body could possibly get caught up in. It is approximately a 4 mile stretch of river where there are a lot of inlets, weirs and small lakes that can be flooded by a swollen river, and a place that people don't generally go! There are some paths and fishing lakes but a good deal of it was inaccessible scrub. Along the sides of the river is a tract of land that has very dense vegetation, with a great deal of evidence of a huge amount of beaver activity. Their felling of the trees has left all sorts of logs and complete tree roots in the water and on the edge, perfect places to catch a body. Needless to say progress for us all was slow and difficult and a times dangerous (the beaver activity has left parts of the banks undermined, places that could easily give way and land you in the river,) - tripping over felled logs and briars, getting scratched and bitten, it was not easy walking.
Dog handlers Crashing through the undergrowth Post-lunch briefing in a garage
It was amazing to watch the divers and the dogs working. The dog handlers wore wet suits too as they had to lead the dogs to where they wanted them to search, so that included balancing precariously on tree branches that were overhanging the water (and often falling in off them as they gave way under their weight,) and working in and along the waters edge, slipping and sliding and sinking into the mud and silt. Despite these guys saying it is their job to do this; I have to admire their bravery working in these circumstances as they frequently put their lives on the line. The river at this point is very wide, very swift and not only has some of the glacial silt in it but also a very fine black silt. Fortunately the water was very low for his time of the year and instead of having nil visibility the divers reported that they could at least see as far as their hand in front of their faces! We watched them trying to swim to a collection of tree trunks and debris in the middle of the river, swimming with the current they were carried along so fast they completely missed their target and were swept past as the river was moving just too rapidly for them. They told us that in one of the small inlets they had been swimming with the beavers!
South of Bonneville
Beaver damage Divers in river Dog handlers in river looking upstream
Towards the end of the afternoon, as we were waiting for the dogs to come and search a clearing that the river obviously swept round while in flood, I felt so despondent and helpless, realising that now for a third time, regardless of doing everything that I could possibly think of, despite the policemen's very best efforts, and everyone searching everywhere they could, that the river had beaten us again and how merciless it is. Once in there you have no second chance, it is too cold, too swift with too many obstacles, too many rocks and logs, a too slippery bed and too much silt - too dangerous for any person. I have never liked water and now I realise that my fears are well founded. Any water demands the greatest of respect and care.
At the end of another very long, hot day, with dogs and men (and one woman!) exhausted, everyone was very disappointed, they all so wanted to find something, to help us put an end to this tortuous period, to have an answer. The police told us that they nearly always do find people who fall in the river and only very occasionally they don't. A few years ago a flash flood went through a campsite above Chamonix and 23 people were swept away, 22 bodies were recovered, only one was never found. While we were there this time, a body was found further downstream, but it turned out to be a woman.
As we all gathered wearily round the Land Rovers before we drove the hour back up the valley to Chamonix, my husband, David, asked the Police Chief if it were his son, would they be doing any more or indeed anything different, and the reply was "Non!"
From the point where we finished searching the river narrows and is marked on the map as "torrent" for a while and then after that it widens again. The Police said they will put the divers in to search the banks along there sometime next week. After that, the Arve joins the Rhone at the neck of Lake Geneva and there is a big filter which is regularly checked as are the other filters and dams further down stream to Marseille where the river empties into the sea. The only problem, even though the filters are regularly checked, is that if the river is up, then things can go over the top! They also informed us that if Blake’s body is caught up with a log or some debris, it won’t be until the summer melt occurs that it will be freed and swept on down stream.
So, now we can only wait.
The following day we went back to the garden where Blake was last seen before he vanished, to see if we could find Blake's phone, according to his phone bill it didn't go off the French network until the 28th August! The grass has died down now and even though at the time the police did thoroughly search the garden, we thought it might be easier to have a really good look. So along with 3 policemen we raked every square inch of it; anyway, no luck. Afterwards, speaking with the police, they thought that a possible scenario was that perhaps he could have been mugged and his phone thrown away.
What actually happened to him is still a total mystery. We go over and over various different theories, the most likely being that for whatever reason, whether he was pushed, thrown, or simply fell, he is in that damned river.
Once again the police were marvellous and treated us extremely well, even inviting us to dine with them on the 2 days we were out and about with them! We cannot ask any more of them. I am very glad I was there to see what they did, because now I am totally satisfied that there is no more that can be done - of course if anybody can think of something we have missed, then please do let me know.
The fact that this may never be resolved is the really difficult bit to cope with, so I think our next step, if they don't find anything over the next 3 months is to organise a memorial service for Blake, may be on or near the 8th August. We do need to do something to mark the passing of his life, to celebrate his achievements and to put an end to this awfulness. We have no clear resolution, and maybe never will have, so this is the best I can think of to achieve some sort of closure. As much as I don’t really want the French police to find him (not finding him could mean he is still alive somewhere,) it would be better if it is the river that has taken him that we have a body and can therefore have a funeral. It has surprised me how important I think it is to have some kind of ceremony.
I miss him so much. Blake wasn't just my son, he was a good friend too, but loosing a child is something that you never really recover from, you just learn to live with the pain.