In 2003, Steve Miera was a young deputy with the Taos County Sheriff’s Office when he hiked below the Río Grande Gorge Bridge to recover the body of a jumper for the first time.
With a team of emergency workers, he looked over the bridge’s high railing and spotted a blur of colors in the shadows 600 feet below the steel arch bridge.
To reach it, they took the same treacherous path recovery crews take today when a body isn’t carried downstream: a steep and narrow trail that zigzags down to the canyon floor, the kind of route where an uncertain step can spell serious injury or death.
They moved in single file against the cliffs, carrying a body bag and other gear. They hiked over dirt and rocks that could come loose in places, sending smaller stones clattering over the edge and into the silence far below.
When they reached the river, Miera said he could see that the body, which had only been visible as a small speck from above, had been “destroyed” by the fall.
It was an image he immediately wished he could forget.
Fifteen years later, though, it still sticks in his mind, as it does for many other emergency workers in Taos County, who, year after year, shoulder the psychological weight and take the physical risk to retrieve the bodies of people who choose to jump from the Gorge Bridge.
While the jumper’s decision might hold for them the promise of an end, for the people who must interface with the grisly scenes they leave behind, the cycle of trauma never seems to.
Miera can’t recall a year when there wasn’t at least one person who jumped.
In 2018, there were three jumpers and three recoveries, which each cost dozens of hours and thousands of dollars to complete. Taos Volunteer Fire Department is commonly called on to assist, as is New Mexico State Police and the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management, which is working to establish a relationship with Taos Search and Rescue.
Miera was hopeful that 2019 might see zero deaths at the Gorge Bridge until last week, when the same grim report he’s heard many times came across his radio.
On Thursday (April 25), Miera, now 47 and holding the rank of undersheriff, drove out to the west end of the gorge to look for signs of rafters paddling downriver on a mission to recover another body, the 27th, he estimates, since he first hiked below the bridge.
On the river
The sun was shining and the air was warm when a team of seven pushed into the river on two rafts around 10:30 a.m. at John Dunn Bridge.
Barry Weinstock, a BLM employee, and John Nettles, a new member of search and rescue, alternated rowing in one raft, propelling the boat downstream with steady, sweeping strokes.
The water had risen to hide many rocks, but when an obstacle did appear, the oarmen called out commands to Kelly Grossetete, the leader of search and rescue’s recently formed swift-water unit, or Laeljon Knowles, another search and rescue member who has logged many hours on the river. The two moved from the front of the raft to the back, digging paddles into the water to nuance the boat’s movements.
Grossetete had been down the river many times before, but it was the first time she was making the trip to recover a body.
She and her team had trained hard to prepare for what they had to do, but she said she was still nervous about what they would find in the river, having heard the stories about what can happen to a person when they jump from the bridge.
In the other raft, two deputies helped another search and rescue member, Nathan Oswald, navigate downstream. One of the deputies, Lorenzo Chavez, said he had recovered a body on the river at least once before, but said that his fellow deputy, Joe Apodaca, was doing it for the first time that day.
When they reached the first set of rapids, the oarmen stopped shouting commands and instead signaled at the crew with their hands as the roar of whitewater sucked all other sounds out of the air.
It took over two hours before they crossed “Powerline Rapid” to see a yellow paddle rafters had wedged between some rocks on the west bank of the river, marking where they had tethered the body to the shoreline.
The crew went to work immediately, tying the rafts to the riverbank. They could see the body bobbing just beneath the surface of a small rapid. They shouted over the sound of the water, discussing how best bring it to shore.
“You start with the simplest techniques and then you slowly bring in more complicated ones as you need them,” Grossetete later explained of their process.
They decided to move one boat below the rapid and the other above it. The ropes drew taut against the power of the current.
Nettles walked downstream holding a throw bag, a life preserver that can be tossed to another crew member if one happens to fall from a boat and is swept downstream. Weinstock held a line to the lower raft. Knowles held another to steady the upper.
From the upper raft, Oswald reached shoulder deep into the water with a cinch line, trying to secure the body so that it could be pulled free, but the line wouldn’t hold.
The team worked methodically for more than 20 minutes, sometimes stepping into the coursing water to see if another angle might provide a sure grip to pull the body free.
It was Chavez, reaching into the water as Grossetete held onto the back of his life jacket, who finally cinched the rope around the body’s waist.
Grossetete prepared herself for the worst as the body emerged from the water, bruised and bloated from the fall, but still intact after weeks submerged in the cold current.
The team placed the remains carefully into a white body bag and then into a black one before tying it to a raft.
The young deputies extended a thumbs-up to the west rim, where Miera stood in silhouette against the sky.
Then they continued downstream, through the rapids, to Pilar.
‘The ultimate hard’
Before he was reported missing on April 5, Anthony Hildebrand, 35, had moved to Taos to work with the Earthship community on the mesa west of the Gorge Bridge.
His car was found parked at the bridge rest area in the days after he went missing. His friends said he had emailed them a suicide note.
A member of search and rescue also knew him. She joined in multiple searches in early April that turned up no sign of him. As the boats pulled out of the water in Pilar on Thursday afternoon, she waited alongside Delinda VanneBrightyn, president of Taos Search and Rescue, Chris Kodey, the organization’s training officer, and a member of the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.
With the OMI officer, she attempted to make an identification, but only recognized a tattoo on the body’s leg, consistent with one Hildebrand was known to have.
“It helps if you’ve done it before but sometimes it just hits you in a way that it’s still very, very difficult,” VanneBrightyn said of this step in the recovery process. “Especially if you happen to know the person. We’ve had missions – not just this one – where our people have known a person. That’s the ultimate hard.”
As of press time on Wednesday (May 1), a positive identification was pending a medical examination by OMI, but the recovery crew is almost certain that the body they pulled from the river is Hildebrand’s.
‘It takes a special kind of person’
VanneBrightyn said this week that she and her team have recovered bodies from other locations around Northern New Mexico, but she said retrieving the bodies of jumpers from the Gorge Bridge can be particularly hard on people.
“It takes a special kind of person to come out and do this because you don’t know what you’re going to find there,” she said. “It’s especially sad for people who have given up, and while it ends for them, it doesn’t end for all the people here. It doesn’t end for the family. It doesn’t end for friends. It doesn’t end for the people who have to go in and get them. It’s an ongoing story.”
Over the years, Miera has learned to go home at night and immerse himself in his family life. He says other people who go out on recoveries head to the gym after work or take up other hobbies that help them decompress.
After 24 years in law enforcement, though, Miera knows the toll each recovery takes.
“I don’t even know how I deal with it,” he said. “It is going to affect these people and it is going to cause PTSD in these people. I’m sure it already has in some cases. I protect myself by shutting it off and I use my discipline and my respect for these people and for these families to maintain that professional presence so that the remains continue with dignity and the families are treated with dignity,” he said.
“Then I get ready for the next day.”