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Search continues for two hikers swept into Grand Canyon park creek

(National Park Service Photo)

PHOENIX — An extensive search continued near the Grand Canyon on Friday for two hikers who went missing nearly a week ago after they were swept down a remote creek.

Authorities are searching for Jackson Standefer, 14, and Lou-Ann Merrell, 62, Standefer’s step-grandmother and the wife of Randy Merrell, who helped found the Merrell Boot Co. in 1981.

Standfefer, who is described as being 5-feet, 10-inches tall and 105 pounds, was last seen wearing black Nike shorts, a white long-sleeved Columbia T-shirt, and navy sandals and carrying a light green backpack. He has black hair.

Merrell is blonde, 5’5″, has green eyes and was wearing khaki shorts, a blue-green shirt and blue water sports shoes.

The search has prompted park officials to turn to drones, an aerial technology that can enter crevices and other rugged spots unreachable by foot while sparing searchers the dangers of going up in a helicopter.

“Our historic model was to take the helicopter to look and see,” said Grand Canyon chief ranger Matt Vandzura. But now, drones can offer “that same close look but without putting any people at risk. It has dramatically increased our ability to keep our people safe.”

The park scaled back the operation and stopped using the drones but continued the search. In a statement, the hikers’ families backed the decision and said they were “still praying for a miracle.”

The pair lost their footing on April 15 as they crossed Tapeats Creek and fell into the water before being swept away by the current. They were on a family trip with Randy and the boy’s mother in a remote area of the Arizona park.

Officials were alerted later that night when an emergency GPS locator beacon was set off below the canyon’s North Rim, said Chief Ranger Matt Vandzura of the National Park Service.

Mark McOmie, Jackson’s uncle, said the Merrells were avid hikers and knew the area well.

Lou-Ann is “a very experienced backpacker,” McOmie said. “If they can get to a spot where they cannot be in the water and stay warm, she’s got the skills needed to get them through it. The odds aren’t great. But given their skills and knowledge of the area, that will probably lead to the best possible outcome.”

McOmie said searchers have found their backpacks with belongings inside, which the family has interpreted with mixed feelings. He said it looks as if they were able to get their backpacks off.

“The bad part is that they don’t have their gear,” McOmie said.

The park service said it’s too early to determine what went wrong. No rain or flash flooding was reported in the area, and it was not known whether the water level was higher than usual in Tapeats Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River that runs through the Arizona landmark.

Creeks in the canyon often see higher water levels in the spring as snow melts, Vandzura said.

The park service describes conditions in the area on its website, warning that melting snow or heavy rain can make crossing the creek impossible.

It also said hikers can use a “sketchy, seldom-used trail” that lets them walk around the creek when the water is high, but the path should be used only as a last resort.

In a statement on Tuesday, Jim Zwiers, the executive vice president of Wolverine Worldwide, said the company’s thoughts, prayers and hearts are with the Merrell family.

Zwiers also said in the written statement that the company was grateful to the searchers and that he continues to be hopeful.

KTAR’s Jim Cross and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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