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Forging a path after hiker’s rescue

Eller family looks to tech; others oppose cameras, efforts

Chris Berquist, volunteer coordinator for the Amanda Eller search, is shown May 20 combing through data from GPS trackers in the Makawao Forest Reserve. Berquist has been employed by Amanda’s father, John Eller, to help found a nonprofit deploying search-and-rescue technology that could help volunteers during missing person incidents. -- FRANK DEUTSCH photo

As the dust settles after Amanda Eller’s 17-day disappearance in Makawao Forest Reserve, questions remain over how to forge the best path forward.

Eller, a physical therapist and yoga instructor, went missing from May 8 to May 24, leading to one of the largest volunteer-based searches in recent Maui County history that averaged 100 searchers a day and amassing $77,000 in GoFundMe donations. Her ordeal garnered national and international attention, thrusting Maui County and its search efforts into the media spotlight.

Eller’s father, John Eller, credits technology and the volunteer search effort for finding his daughter. He is in the process of starting a tech-boosted, search-and-rescue nonprofit and investigating whether installing wildlife cameras in rural areas such as the Makawao Forest Reserve would aid families in missing person cases.

Meanwhile, an online petition that’s generated nearly 2,000 signatures has been launched to call attention to the financial responsibility of trespassing hikers who require county and state support and to protest the use of potential cameras in rural places.

“As seen with the Amanda Eller ‘findamanda’ rescue mission (part 1), failure to establish personal responsibility, placed the people of Hawaii at risk for physical harm when responding for rescue efforts,” the petition says. “Many signing the petition have spoke out against the addition of cameras to our parks and sacred land.”

Dan Johnson of Makawao shows a map of the gulches that he and several other rappellers surveyed May 12 during the successful search for Amanda Eller last month. Eller’s father, John, credits technology and volunteer efforts to finding Amanda. He and searchers launched Phase Two, a search-and-rescue initiative that employs technology, after she was found. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

John Eller said Saturday that he is in the process of establishing a nonprofit, private organization called Search Technology Advisory Team (STAT) Foundation. Funded by private donations and grants, it provides “a technology assist” to volunteer-led, rural search-and-rescue missions with “limited professional SAR involvement.”

“STAT will provide technology and search coordination expertise to these volunteers-led efforts at no cost to the families, except possibly the customary travel reimbursement,” John Eller said, adding that priority service would go to Hawaii families with limited resources.

Volunteer search leader Chris Berquist has been tapped to help lead the group, with support from John Eller, who owns tech company InSight Mobile Data. Berquist and John Eller said the saturation of a Makawao Forest Reserve GPS map within a close radius led searchers to push farther out, ultimately leading to Amanda Eller’s discovery.

Amanda was spotted via private helicopter about 5-7 miles northeast from the trailhead. The Kailua area is about 30 miles in walking distance from the trailhead, according to Javier Cantellops, volunteer searcher. Volunteers saturated via foot about a 2-mile radius surrounding the trailhead.

Berquist visited California recently to learn about search-and-rescue operation techniques that can be used on Maui. John Eller donated software and other equipment to Berquist’s team, developing a search-and-rescue app and giving $10,000 to support Hawaii searches and rescues.

John Eller is shown at the Makawao Forest Reserve base camp on May 18. In the wake of his daughter’s safe return, Eller, who owns a technology company, is in the process of creating a tech-boosted search-and-rescue nonprofit that would assist volunteer-led searches. Amanda Eller was missing for 17 days in northeast Maui forestland. -- FRANK DEUTSCH photo

“STAT team is being trained in incident management and resources integration via management and resources integration via (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and (National Association for Search and Rescue) to help us better understand the existing baseline of crisis management and allow us to create technologies to assist in the field of search and rescue,” John Eller said Saturday.

The initial search for Amanda Eller was called Phase One by family and volunteers. Less than a week after her discovery, Phase Two, the family’s search-and-rescue work, was launched.

Phase Two proposed installing cameras in Makawao Forest Reserve in a YouTube post by John Eller and Berquist. A recent Facebook post by the Eller family clarified the devices would be wildlife cameras in the forest parking lot, which are already in use by hunters to detect and photograph movement in other parts of Makawao Forest Reserve.

John Eller said there aren’t updates regarding the cameras since the Facebook post, where the family said community and government support would be needed to proceed with the idea.

“We continue to research ways to employ technologies including wildlife cameras, GPS-based search apps, search planning tools, off-the-grid communications equipment, etc., to aid in future search-and-rescue missions while being sensitive to the privacy issues raised by some in the community,” he said Saturday. “This is an ongoing initiative that will continue until we find acceptable solutions.”

As the dust settles from the search that combed through Makawao Forest Reserve for missing hiker Amanda Eller, residents have various opinions on how to carve a path forward for local search-and-rescue efforts. -- FRANK DEUTSCH photo

The Facebook post also clarified that John Eller’s company provides GPS mobile mapping technology that is not related to wildlife cameras.

In an online petition, author Sherrie McKeown said the majority of those signing the document reject Phase Two of “Finding Amanda” and question the camera installation.

“The intentions of the Eller family should be held with high caution as timing and circumstances beg scrutiny,” the petition says. “If the addition of cameras were permitted, it should be subject to proper approvals and bidding processes as with any state contract for services. Such a contract should assure it does not violate any established rights of the Hawaiian people to practice their traditions or intrude on land that should not be trespassed on regardless.”

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees the reserve, said Friday that the Ellers have not yet contacted the department regarding the proposal, which would require state permission.

There are no rules preventing hunters from installing cameras on public land, and the department also confirmed DLNR staff already uses cameras on gates, parking lots and for monitoring wildlife.

“The family is welcome to contact (Division of Forestry and Wildlife) Maui and they’re willing to talk to them, but again no formal contact has been made,” DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said.

As for Amanda Eller’s recovery, John Eller said his daughter is recovering well, down to “one crutch” and is slowly easing back into her physical therapy practice.

“She looks forward to a full recovery and getting back to all of her patients very soon,” he said. “She continues to be awed by the support and commitment by the Maui community and everyone worldwide who contributed to her successful rescue.”

* The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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