Authorities say they plan to resume a search for a fourth day on Sunday as emergency crews continue try to recover the 9-year-old Janesville girl who went missing in the Rock River on Thursday.
On Saturday afternoon, the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and multiple fire departments with water search teams had started to branch out and canvass downstream parts of the river in Janesville and near Afton.
That was a shift from a search that on Thursday and Friday had focused largely on the river near Anglers Park in Janesville—the area near where a 9-year-old Janesville girl that family has identified as Madison Billups, is thought to have been swept away.
Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Thompson said searchers on Saturday picked up where they’d left off Friday evening, using divers and “swift-water” rescue teams to comb the turbid waters just downstream of the Monterey Bridge, where Billups was last seen.
But Thompson said a 12-hour search Saturday began to pivot to focus on deeper waters in the river downstream between Janesville’s south side and the Afton area, areas south and west of where Billups was last seen.
He said aside from some "indications" that searchers' cadaver-sniffing dogs made on a stretch of river near the Highway 11 bridge, divers had no luck finding Billups.
The search will continue Sunday morning, with possible continued diving, use of dogs and canvassing using boat sonar, Thompson indicated.
"We're gonna get back at it," Thompson said.
Billups apparently got swept away Thursday evening in the strong river current at Anglers Park. She had gone in shallows near a set of train bridges west of the Monterey Bridge with her older brother when the two apparently slipped off rocks and into the heavy current. Billups went under and witnesses apparently lost sight of her, family and police indicated.
Thompson said the search team had begun to split off Friday afternoon into Saturday, with some larger boats focusing more heavily on deeper waters to the south.
The expanded search Saturday spanned from Rock River Parkway Trailhead boat launch on South County D and Happy Hollow Park in the town of Rock.
That’s a 4-mile stretch of river that Thompson said tends to have deeper water than the shallow, rocky stretch near Angler’s Park that “swift water” searchers and cadaver-sniffing dogs had been combing on Thursday, Friday and part of Saturday.
“We'd done a very extensive search of this (Anglers Park) area and came up with no luck,” Thompson said Saturday afternoon. “We've had bigger boats all the way down close to (Beloit-Rock) Townline Road. We’ll hold our bigger boats down in that area, but we still have canine resources up here (at Anglers Park).”
Thompson said the search farther south relied more heavily on sonar, diving and the use of cadaver-sniffing dogs because the water downstream is deeper and not conducive to searchers wading into the water for a search on foot.
He said despite the trained dogs "hitting stronger" in areas of the river near the Highway 11 bridge, he said divers working in that area downstream noted "lots of obstructions and some difficult searching."
On Saturday, dozens of family members of Billups continued to hold a vigil at Anglers Park, where some family have congregated around the clock since Billups went missing Thursday night.
Meanwhile, volunteer searchers have begun to coordinate with Billups’ family to scour river bank areas and overhanging trees west and south of Anglers Park.
Thompson said the search team he’s in charge of has asked volunteers to stay out of the river—particularly near Anglers Park and just south, where the current and undertow are strong.
“With the current the way it is, we have to use people who are trained,” Thompson said. “We don't want want somebody else becoming a victim where we have to divert our resources. We're using our resources very well right now, and we don't want to have to maneuver them to somewhere else for somebody who wanted to help.”
As of mid-afternoon on Friday, searchers said they'd begun to consider the search a "recovery" rather than a "rescue."
Thompson said searchers plan to set up a command post at the Rock River Parkway Trailhead boat launch, downstream of Angler's Park where both the search command and Billups' family have been for the last three days.
The Gazette will update this report.