Valentine's Day Missing Couple Part 3: The Story, According to Rescuers

Ian Irwin and Carol Kiparsky were supposed to check out of their Airbnb in Inverness, California on Saturday, February 15th, 2020 at 12:00 PM. When the housekeeper came to clean the cottage and discovered the couple’s car still parked in the driveway later that day, it became apparent that something was awry. She went inside after receiving no answer when she knocked on the door and discovered their hiking gear, walking sticks, cellphones, wallets, and other belongings still lying about. Dinner-making materials were set out on the counter as if the couple had left in a hurry. [Note 1] [1] [2] [3]


The next day—Sunday, February 16th—Ian and Carol missed a morning appointment and were officially reported missing. A ground search was launched that afternoon with some 60 searchers from the Marin County Sheriff Department’s Search & Rescue division. Employees of California Highway Patrol, Marin County Fire Department, the National Park Service, Inverness Fire Department, and California State Parks also joined the search. They began with “the trails and beaches in the nearby Tomales Bay State Park and surrounding community,” according to the Marin SAR final report on the search. “Teams encountered very dense and often impenetrable vegetation off all trails surrounding the cottage and greater neighborhood,” the report explains. In addition to walking all the trails, on that first day of the search, the Marin County Sheriff’s Department utilized “area K9 teams, UAV’s, ground search teams, H-32, Marin County Fire RWCs for the adjacent water areas, E-bikes, and a ground team with thermal imaging binoculars and a parabolic mic.” [Note 2] [1] [4]


Some of the thick brush that can be seen anywhere in Tomales Bay State Park

On Monday, February 17th, 49 search assignments were completed. More than 130 volunteers from across the Bay Area came in to help with the ground search, bushwhacking through the dense vegetation around the main trails. “Mutual Aid SAR teams from Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa, Alameda, San Mateo, BAMRU, [and] CARDA along with State Parks, Marin County Fire Water Rescue, NPS and aviation units from the Highway Patrol arrived to support the Marin County Sheriff’s assets in the search,” according to the Marin County SAR’s final report. K9 units continued to patrol the trails and area surrounding the trails along with a mounted posse and drones. No clues were found. [Note 3] [4]


The search effort on Tuesday, February 18th carried on through the night. One sergeant reported getting home after 1 a.m. Jonas Irwin, Ian’s son, spoke to ABC7 News, saying that his parents “wouldn’t leave all their stuff, leave their car and just vanish.” Inverness residents were starting to get uneasy at this point, and the couple’s disappearance was the talk of the town. Nevertheless, the search went on. K9 teams, UAV teams, the mounted posse, drones, and volunteers combed the dense foliage. No leads surfaced. [Note 4] [2] [4] [5]


The Marin County Sheriff’s Department switched tactics on Wednesday, February 19th, 2020.


Partnering up with the National Park Service, the Sheriff’s Department changed their focus area to the waters of Tomales Bay. Two boats, one of the National Park Service’s and one of the Sheriff Department’s, the former equipped with K9 teams and a side-scan sonar and the latter loaded up with a dive team and diving equipment, set out from the Inverness Yacht Club around 9:15 a.m. By noon, the dive teams had returned to shore with no new leads. The Park Service continued to search with their sonar-equipped boat and the K9 teams for a while, but their efforts met a similar fate to the Sheriff’s. The Sheriff’s Department sent out another dive team in the evening during low tide, equipped with a remotely-operated underwater vehicle, but again, came up empty. [2] [4]



On Thursday, February 20th, 2020, the Marin County Sheriff’s Department published a grim press release. It read as follows:


The Marin County Sheriff’s Office continues to work with the family of Carol Kiparsky and Ian Irwin in an effort to find them. During our searches with multiple K9 Teams, we have received four independent alerts from Cadaver K9 Teams in the area of Shell Beach. We believe that our extensive search efforts with every resource that has been available to us would have located Carol and Ian if they were responsive or in an area accessible by foot on land.


We worked tirelessly combing through all leads and areas surrounding the cottage they were vacationing at and are now calling this a recovery mission. [6]


Regardless, the search continued. The U.S. Coast Guard provided “aerial support around Tomales Bay and the shoreline,” and volunteers, though their numbers were waning, still continued to comb the forest. [2] [4]


Friday, February 21st, 2020 was much the same as the day before. The Sheriff’s Department used “jet skis, National Park Service boats, an airplane and drones” to continue the search of Tomales Bay. No leads were found. [4]


Early in the morning on Saturday, February 22nd, two search and rescue volunteers, Rich Cassens and Quincy Webster, were paired and instructed to search the drainage area at the privately-owned Shallow Beach area. At this point, officials had little hope of finding Ian and Carol alive. “There was no good rationale behind” searching the drainage area at Shallow Beach, according to Palo Alto Weekly reporter Lloyd Lee. “All the ‘high priority areas’ had already been canvassed, according to Cassens. They were looking anywhere else that could possibly be searched.” [7]


Rich Cassens had with him his 3-year-old golden retriever, Groot. Groot was trained and certified in locating human remains. For all intents and purposes, this was a recovery mission. [7]


Cassens and Webster parked their vehicle on Shallow Beach Road and began the search at the beach, working their way up the drainage area. After wading through mud up to Webster’s knees, however, they reached an impassable wall of underbrush, complete with thorny vines and poison oak. Armed with nothing but their bodies and gloved hands, the pair had no choice but to start ripping away at the foliage. The SAR effort hadn’t tried to enter this thicket because all officials had deemed it humanly impossible to traverse—nobody expected the elderly couple to have gotten in there. [7]


But, only ninety minutes or so into their task, Cassens and Webster, having barely made a dent in the bush-wall, heard voices. [7]


They were taken aback, initially thinking they were hearing the voices of another search team nearby. They sent Groot to investigate. Then the adrenaline kicked in, and Cassens and Webster took off after Groot, straight up the ravine, no longer caring about finding a “good” route through the thicket. Sure enough, they found the couple, propped up in the bush, but looking ecstatic to see their rescuers. With regards to the moment that the rescuers arrived, Lloyd Lee of Palo Alto Weekly writes:


When the search team finally reached Irwin and Kiparsky, the couple was elated and shocked with disbelief.


“As soon as they saw us, you could see their spirits were lifted and they asked, ‘Are you really real?’” Cassens said. “We assured them that we were.”


Physically, they were beaten up, he recalled. Their hands and feet were cut from the brush they had crawled through, as they later told their sons. [7]


Comments from Sgt. Brenton Schneider, one of the leading officials on the case, reveal a bigger picture of the couple’s state upon their rescue:


“Their clothing was something that you go out on a light evening, there were no jackets…I know that Carol was found without shoes so it sounds like they may have fallen.” [8]

“[Irwin] started singing a song when the helicopter came, and he still had a little sarcasm behind his voice, even then.” [8]

“We’ve all come to the conclusion that Carol and Ian surviving is a miracle. We are so ecstatic.” [9]

The couple was ferried by helicopter to Marin General Hospital to be treated for mild hypothermia and dehydration. [10]




Their condition was summarized in an update posted on Sunday, February 23rd by the Marin County Sheriff’s Department:


Carol and Ian are in amazing spirits and have expressed their gratitude to everyone for the well wishes during their recovery. They are still hospitalized and being monitored due to the extensive abrasions from the dense brush. They have an excellent group of professionals monitoring them at a local hospital. [11]




 

Notes

 

Note 1: It is unclear, based on my sources, whether the police were alerted shortly after the discovery of their belongings in the cottage, or if they were alerted the next day. There is no required waiting period for missing persons reports in the State of California, so if I had to hazard a guess, I’d presume that, since the search did not begin until the following day, the housekeeper and Airbnb host probably spent Saturday trying to contact family members and friends.


 

Note 2: UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicle, a.k.a. drone. According to Airborne Drones, Search and Rescue UAVs “are designed to provide cost effective, real time data and imaging, day or night, in challenging conditions and without risk to personnel.” They are equipped with an “infrared (IR) thermal imaging camera that can detect human body heat.”


H-32 is the name of a helicopter operated by the California Highway Patrol Golden Gate Division. H-32 is an H125 Airbus, the baseline helicopter for public services, according to the Airbus website.


RWC stands for rescue watercraft. Marin County Fire has two of them.


E-bikes have been used by the Marin County Search and Rescue team since 2019 and have been slowly replacing the team’s ATV fleet, since ATVs are “loud and because of the ambient noise of the motor, it’s impossible to hear somebody yelling [for help] unless you turn off and stop the motor,” according to Michael St. John, the commander of the Marin County SAR team, in an interview published in December of 2020. “With the e-bikes,” he said, “you’re able to search and have all of your senses.”


Thermal imaging binoculars are a common tool in night hunting, but can be used for SAR efforts as well. Based on ATN Corp's and Pulsar's web catalogs, visible distance ranges from 5 to 2,000 meters (roughly 16 to 6,562 feet, or 16 feet to a mile-and-a-quarter). The couple was less than half a mile away from major hiking trails the entire time that they were missing.


A parabolic mic is a microphone that “uses a parabolic reflector to collect and focus sound waves into a microphone, much in the same way a parabolic antenna (eg, satellite dish) focuses radio waves,” as defined in a study that compared parabolic microphones to unaided listening in SAR scenarios. That same study found that, using a 66-cm (26-inch) parabolic mic (the largest parabolic mic available at the time), persons yelling for help located between 322 and 1,190 meters (roughly one fifth of a mile and three quarters of a mile) away can be heard by a parabolic microphone without a problem. Persons yelling from between 1,529 and 2,510 meters (about a mile and a mile-and-a-half) away are heard 86% successfully. The study showed “the parabolic microphone to be superior in both detecting and comprehending hidden subjects who are calling.”


 

Note 3: BAMRU stands for Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit—an “all-volunteer, non-profit wilderness search and rescue team specializing in operations involving difficult terrain, challenging weather conditions and high altitude,” according to their website. CARDA stands for California Rescue Dog Association, Inc—“a group of volunteers with specially trained dogs dedicated to assisting in the search for missing persons,” according to their website.


 

Note 4: All comments on Facebook and news articles illustrate the restlessness within the communities situated around Tomales Bay. There are too many comments; citing each one individually would be a headache and a half, so I will leave it up to the reader to scroll through them.


 

Sources

 

[1] "Missing Person search continues." Marin County Sheriff's Office, 16 February, 2020, https://www.marinsheriff.org/community/news-press-releases/missing-person-search-continues-inverness. Press release.


[2] Lee, Lloyd. "Looking 'beyond everywhere': Palo Alto couple remains missing after fourth day of searches." Palo Alto Online, 20 February, 2020, https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2020/02/20/looking-beyond-everywhere-palo-alto-couple-remains-missing-after-fourth-day-of-searches. Accessed 21 February, 2021.


[3] Anonymous informant (Seahaven resident) in discussion with author, February 2021.


[4] "Inverness Missing Couple." Marin County Search and Rescue, https://marinsar.org/missions/2020#20-09. Mission report.


[5] Hassan, Anser. "Missing Palo Alto couple: Son of missing man says disappearance is out of character." ABC7 Bay Area, 18 February, 2020, https://abc7news.com/missing-couple-marin-county-persons-inverness-bay-area/5944297/. Accessed 22 February, 2021.


[6] "Inverness search information and future plans." Marin County Sheriff's Office, 20 February 2020, https://www.marinsheriff.org/community/news-press-releases/inverness-search-information-and-future-plans. Press release.


[7] Lee, Lloyd. "Two volunteers, one dog and the story of the Palo Alto couple's unlikely rescue." Palo Alto Online, 25 February 2020, https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2020/02/25/two-volunteers-one-dog-and-the-story-of-the-palo-alto-couples-unlikely-rescue. Accessed 22 February, 2021.


[8] Castañeda, Leonardo & Aldo Toledo. "'He Started Singing:' Palo Alto couple found alive after vanishing a week ago during a hike." The Mercury News, 22 February, 2020, https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/02/22/missing-palo-alto-couple-found-alive-extraction-ongoing/#:~:text=Carol%20Kiparsky%20and%20Ian%20Irwin%20went%20on%20a%20hike%20on,after%20search%20by%20rescue%20crews.. Accessed 18 February, 2021.


[9] Torres, Ella & Emily Shapiro. "Couple who vanished at California vacation cottage found alive after a week." ABC News, 22 February 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/US/couple-vanished-vacation-cottage-found-alive/story?id=69146047. Accessed 15 February, 2022.


[10] Cartwright, Braden. "Lost couple found alive after week in the woods." Point Reyes Light, 26 February, 2020, https://www.ptreyeslight.com/news/lost-couple-found-alive-after-week-woods/. Accessed 10 February, 2021.


[11] "Statement from the Irwin and Kiparsky Family." Marin County Sheriff's Office, 23 February, 2020, https://www.marinsheriff.org/community/news-press-releases/statement-from-the-irwin-and-kiparsky-family. Press release.


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