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PA - search called off for missing hunter

By Jim Heasley & Patrick Shuster
Monday, December 3, 2007

BURRELL - The search for missing hunter Patrick Fitzgerald was officially called off Sunday, when search crews were able to find his canoe, but not him, in Crooked Creek Lake.

After five days of searching, organizers were ready to call off their search Saturday afternoon until crews using underwater camera and sonar equipment located the canoe and other personal items from the lake.

A limited number of crews did go back out yesterday, hoping to locate Fitzgerald's body in the same area as the canoe, but after a sixth full day, called off the search indefinitely when they were unable to locate him.

Search crews have been scanning Crooked Creek Lake and the surrounding areas for Patrick M. Fitzgerald, 46, of Hancock Avenue, Allegheny Township, who went missing Tuesday.

Saturday's find came after more than 200 volunteers came out to search the nearly 500-acre lake and surrounding terrain.

As crews were returning to the township fire hall, used as the command post, around 5 p.m. Saturday, it was reported that boat crews using sonar and underwater camera equipment had found something submerged in the lake about a half-mile upstream from Robbs Fording Road, where Fitzgerald had launched his canoe just before 7 a.m. Tuesday.

By 8 p.m. Saturday, more than 12 hours after the search crews began scouring the area around the lake, family members confirmed that searchers had, in fact found Fitzgerald's canoe and various personal items.

Fitzgerald, an experienced hunter, was known to launch his canoe and travel upstream from the launching point to hunt in remote areas around the lake and had contacted his mother when he arrived at the launch point Tuesday morning.

The phone call was the last time he had been heard from and when crews began a search 12 hours later, the only signs of Fitzgerald were his truck and trailer, parked along Robbs Fording Road.

Craig Davis, assistant Burrell Township fire chief, said that while finding the canoe was an important discovery, it was not considered a victory for search crews.

"Obviously, finding him was the goal, but we were able to at least locate his canoe and other items that belonged to him," Davis said. "We did all we could do and for now, there isn't much more than can be done."

While not a victory, Davis said finding the canoe made the tireless efforts of searchers worthwhile.

"Everyone who helped can have the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped this family come to some level of closure," he said.

The tiny Burrell Township fire hall, located in a rural area near Crooked Creek Lake, was bustling with activity long before sunrise Saturday morning as search crews from local fire departments, canine search and rescue teams, state police, the state Fish Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, local neighbors, and even Fitzgerald's coworkers at Medrad Inc. in O'Hara Township, filed into the parking lot.

Crews were placed into teams and given maps of specific areas to be searched. At the height of the search, more than 130 searchers were in the field at one time.

"Every single person who came out worked to their full potential and we were able to cover a large area very thoroughly," Davis said. "We had no reports of any injuries and everyone who went out, came back safely."

Members of the fire department's ladies auxiliary were busy throughout the week, proving hot coffee, doughnuts, fruits and snacks to search crews. Crews were treated to a spaghetti dinner throughout the day Saturday.

Family members, who wished not to be identified, commented numerous times that they were amazed with the turnout of the volunteers, some who came from as far away as Virginia and Baltimore.

Family members spent both days at the fire hall, talking with search crews and waiting for any news from search leaders.

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