LAWRENCE COUNTY — Since May 2, friends, family, park officials and strangers searched the shores of Slippery Rock Creek for Jeffery Hanby II, the Meadville man who fell in the stream below the covered bridge at McConnells Mill State Park.
On Thursday, two months to the day since Hanby fell in the creek hiking with his fiancée, the family received the closure they were seeking.
“It's bittersweet,” Hanby's sister, Jodi Kearns, told the Eagle Friday.
“I knew this was coming, but part of me was still holding onto a little hope,” she said, acknowledging that all other options had been exhausted during the initial search. “We're glad that he's finally home.”
A crew of three park officials, including park supervisor Dustin Drew, ranger supervisor Brian Moore and another park ranger, discovered Hanby Thursday morning during a routine search.
Moore said Drew had selected a particular area of interest that morning, roughly a half-mile below Eckert Bridge. Using an underwater camera, the three-man crew was able to identify one of Hanby's shoes. They located the 38-year-old underwater in front of what Moore described as a boulder with deep water and parts of a downed-tree submerged in front of it.
“It would have been next to impossible to find him without the camera,” Moore said.
Assistant park supervisor Brian Flores cited terrain and stream features for the prolonged search.
“The conditions there are so rugged,” he said. “There's really no established trails in (that) area.”
Moore added that the stream itself, which includes up to class III whitewater, has numerous rocks that made the search efforts challenging and potentially dangerous.
“People way underestimate that stream,” he said. “It would have been tricky to get divers in that area.”
Multiple rescue crews from Beaver, Lawrence and Butler counties, including Butler County Water Rescue Team 300, assisted with the recovery Thursday.
During the two-month search, park officials said they exhausted all options, including drones, search dogs, and search and rescue groups.
“We used every modern tool at our disposal,” Flores said.
He said a search crew with sonar was called in at one point, but was unable to search because of creek hazards and topography. Many of the rocks considered possible locations were also too dangerous for divers, he said.
“(Searches are) hard enough on the lake,” Flores said, noting that one lake search in which he was involved a few years ago took over a month.
Hanby's family organized their own volunteer effort through a Facebook group that eventually grew to more than 700 people.
“It was very humbling knowing there were people like that out to help. We didn't know them at all. We had people from all over come out,” Kearns said. “There were so many different types of people. It was amazing. One of the volunteers opened their house to us.”
Kearns' sister-in-law, Tiffany Kearns, and husband, Rob Kearns, directed much of the volunteer search effort.
“We met a lot of selfless people who put themselves at risk to help a family that they did not even know,” Tiffany Kearns said. “Those people (who) were once strangers to us are now friends (who) feel like family.”
Volunteers regularly posted updates on the Facebook page describing where they had looked and offering suggestions.
Jodi Kearns and Tiffany Kearns said the effort had its share of challenges. On several occasions, the page drew wild speculation and unfounded theories.
“We knew it wasn't a possibility,” Jodi said of speculation that her brother survived and was lost. “We would have loved that possibility.”
Some of their signs about the missing man were recently vandalized with words claiming his disappearance was a fraud.
Other posts challenged the park's search efforts, which Flores defended.
“There's a lot of behind-the-scenes (work),” Flores said, describing reviewing underwater video and reviewing map locations.
“You might not see a truck down there every day,” Flores said, adding they were there every day, working their way down the creek from the place where Hanby was last sighted above Eckert Bridge.
“We wanted closure for the family in the worst way,” Moore said.