Queenstown’s Mr Search and Rescue

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It was nearly twenty-years ago when two-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank went missing in Kingston, never to be found. 

The case still haunts Wakatipu’s newly-retired veteran search and rescue advisor Russell Carr. 

The mild-mannered man, who’s managed hundreds of search and rescue operations in the past 40 years, says he doesn’t dwell on the ones found dead – but for years couldn’t drive past Kingston without thinking of Amber-Lee. 

The evening of October 17 back in 1992 was calm and clear when Carr arrived at Kingston to coordinate the search team. 

“I looked at the lake I thought there’s no way she’s in there – we would have been able to see her.” 

When divers were sent into the lake newspapers were discovered sitting on the lake floor, years old and undisturbed. 

A blood-hound dog was brought up from Dunedin. 

“You could almost see the wee girl, the way she would have been running erratically, as the dog was following her path. 

“Then suddenly, the dog just stopped on the edge of the lake and sort of looked around and thought ‘where is she?’.” 

Initially, he thought Amber-Lee may have fallen asleep under [something] or a boat but after two days of searching questions arose about whether something more sinister was committed, which Carr admits he hadn’t thought of. 

“The police started to put a different twist on things; they started investigating foul play, abduction and I thought ‘c’mon, what are they on about?’.” 

For someone who doesn’t dwell on the negative outcomes Carr admits this one has played on his mind since the day of the toddler’s disappearance. 

“I’d love to think she’s alive and well somewhere – but who knows? You always think ‘oh gee maybe I should have done that’.” 

Carr says it’s always harder when you know the person you’re looking for but adds: “I’m a very calm person.” 

One of the hardest searches for Carr was when renowned Central Otago farmer and environmentalist Arthur Borrell disappeared on the remote high country Branches Station he owned for 33-years. 

It was a huge operation back in April 2005. 

Carr says everyone wanted to be involved because 75-year-old Arthur was such a well-known, well-liked local identity. 

“We surmised he fell down a bluff into the Shiel Burn River but we never found his body. We did however find his shorts and shirt a kilometre away from the place we’d seen that he’d fallen down so we think he was taken away by the river. 

“Rivers are like a washing-machine, it rips your clothes off so you’re always looking for flesh.” 

These searches are two among hundreds Carr has directed during the past four decades. 

“Somebody said to me once ‘do you get a buzz out of doing it?’ I don’t, it can be quite stressful when everybody is looking at you as the expert asking where the lost person is.” 

The fulfilment when you find a person and they don’t even know you, wrap their arms around you and are so happy to see you – that’s all you need, he says. 

Despite managing more than 60 team members during some searches Carr is not an overbearing character – despite cutting an imposing figure – his humble approach is almost overwhelming. 

“It’s not a one-man band, it’s very much a team so I don’t want this to be all about me,” he tells me placidly. 

So why, after 35-years of building the foundations and strengthening the Wakatipu Land Search and Rescue force, does Carr – who knows the back country like the back of his hand – want to retire? 

“I’m happy to leave it in good shape. I didn’t want to stand in the way of those coming through the ranks.” 

Queenstown police senior constable John Fookes has worked alongside Carr for the past 12 years and says Carr has all the traits a strong advisor needs – he’s calm and has initiative. 

“Russell is notable for his encyclopaedic knowledge – his experience has equipped him well with the best source of action to take because he has seen all sorts of examples that have gone wrong. 

All this work was done in his own time, Fookes adds. 

“I shudder to think how many days, weeks and months he has dedicated. 

“He’s so valuable to us and that sort of experience is always a loss but he’s not completely gone to us – we know 
where to find him.”