The search to recover a missing, 9-year-old girl who fell in the Rock River on Thursday evening will shift to a multi-day effort after expected storms Friday night drove a water search team off the river, police said.
Capt. Mark Thompson of the Rock County Sheriff's Office said he'd ordered search boats off the water at 4:30 p.m. Friday after possible storms were predicted later Friday evening.
Thompson said the search, now considered a recovery, will resume early Saturday morning on a stretch of the river west of the Monterey Bridge. That's where multiple divers and rescue crews late Thursday and all day Friday scoured a quarter-mile of water near where a swift current pulled a girl under at about 7:20 p.m. Thursday.
The sheriff's office, the Janesville Fire Department and a dive team from Jefferson County worked a search between two train trestle bridges west of the Monterey Bridge for hours on Friday while dozens of distraught family members held a vigil at Anglers Park.
Anglers Park is city park that's become a popular fishing spot where the river's current is more rapid than other nearby spots. It's adjacent to where the girl went in the river.
The girl and her older brother apparently had been in the river when onlookers said the girl slipped and went under in the current.
Janesville police Deputy Chief Terry Sheridan said it wasn't clear why the girl and her teenage brother went in the water. Two people fishing nearby saw the children struggling, and a woman jumped into the water to try and help, police said.
During the incident, the girl slipped loose from the grasp of her brother or the rescuer, Sheridan said.
“She went under water, and they never seen her again,” Sheridan said.
About 15 family members monitored the search throughout the night Thursday and into Friday at the river. They were watching social media and saw several false alarms about a child’s body being found downriver, said Gail Billups, an aunt of the girl.
Tensions ran high at times Friday, as family members fought ragged emotion and police worked to calm those who'd held vigil Thursday and Friday. The family at times Thursday night formed its own search parties along the river's banks.
One woman cried out in frustration late Thursday afternoon as a sheriff’s official briefed the family on authorities' decision to suspend the search Friday evening because of threatening weather.
The family said the girl, who authorities had not named on Friday, was small in stature for her age but spirited.
One family member called the girl a "firecracker" and said she was "inseparable" from the brother she'd gone in the river with.
Andre Billups, who said he’s the girl’s great uncle, believes the city should put a fence up along the river south of the Monterey Bridge to keep people back from swift waters he said are dangerous and “can get you worse than fire can get you.”
The city has earmarked the stretch west of the Monterey Bridge as a family recreational area geared toward fishing.
Billups said the river conditions in that stretch have changed after the city last year tore out the Monterey Dam, a spillway that had dammed up the river upstream for decades.
Friday morning, emergency crews used an excavator to drop a metal trench box near the two railroad bridges. Authorities hoped to use the box to divert water because the current in the stretch of river was too strong for divers, Sheridan said.
Meanwhile, Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson said the dam at Indianford was shut and the Centerway dam slowed with extra slats, a move authorities said was to slow the water and draw it down so divers could safely search the stretch.
By 2 p.m. Friday, the river in the area had dropped 18 inches, a Gazette reporter at the scene estimated.
The search focused late Friday morning near the railroad trestles because searchers had radar and infrared “readings” from a boat and an aerial drone that made them believe it was an area they should check out, Knudson said.
After the area was checked, however, Knudson said searchers found nothing.
Searchers have since expanded the focus of their search to the railroad bridge area and portions of the river downstream. By midday, authorities declared the search a "recovery" rather than a rescue, police said.
A cadaver-sniffing dog was loaded onto a boat and taken to the search area Friday afternoon.
On Friday, authorities said they'd likely have to reopen the dams upstream to restore water near the search area. That would make it easier to continue using larger search boats that have radar.
Thompson said the sheriff's office planned Saturday to bring in another specialty dive team to join the search, which now has been broadened to include an area south near Afton.
Sheridan called the segment of river between the railroad bridges "very dangerous" with a strong undercurrent.
Knudson estimated the water between the trestles Thursday night was 3 to 5 feet deep.
Police and fire officials searched overnight Thursday until after 2 a.m. Friday, Janesville Fire Department Battalion Chief Ryan Murphy said. The search resumed Friday morning.
As many as six boats were searching in the water Thursday night as far downstream as the Highway 11 bridge, Murphy said.
Janesville police, the Rock County Sheriff’s Office, the Janesville Fire Department and the Wisconsin State Patrol responded. Authorities used lights to illuminate the area and deployed drones as part of the search Thursday night, Murphy said.
Andre Billups watched Friday afternoon as crews continued the search for his great-niece. He said he believes the city should look at river safety near a park so others don’t go in the water and get swept away.
Billups remained hopeful Friday that an ongoing search would eventually recover the missing girl.
“She gonna turn up,” he said. “She was crying out last night, crying. But she’s stopped crying. The sun’s trying to come out through this storm. I have faith in that. She gonna turn up.”