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NPS tells family search for missing hikers in Grand Canyon to be scaled back

Jackson Standefer & Lou Ann Merrell have both been missing since Saturday. These photos, provided to NewsChannel 9 by the family, were taken in the Grand Canyon shortly before their disappearance.

The National Park Service has told the family of two missing hikers in the Grand Canyon, one of whom is a student from Chattanooga, that it is scaling back its search for them, as of Thursday morning.

The NPS also says the search for the two missing hikers related to the co-founder of the Merrell Boot Co. is difficult and complex and that it is not requesting any additional resources despite an announcement from the family that it planned on sending its own support.

A spokeswoman said Wednesday that the park service is working closely with the family of 62-year-old LouAnn Merrell and 14-year-old Jackson Standefer and is considering the resources their family has suggested donating. Standefer is a student at McCallie School in Chattanooga.

A statement released on Thursday morning from Standefer's uncle, Mark McOmie, says the National Park Service spoke with the family last night.

"[Wednesday] evening, the National Park Service announced that they were calling off the search for Jackson Standefer and LouAnn Merrell, who have been missing in the Grand Canyon since Saturday evening. The families would like to thank everyone for their tremendous out pouring of love, prayers and support throughout this tragic ordeal. Please respect both families' need for privacy as they come to process and seek God's comfort during this difficult time. We believe families are forever and we will be reunited with our loved ones."

However, the National Park Service contacted NewsChannel 9 early Thursday afternoon to say the search has not, in fact, been called off.

Chief Ranger of the Grand Canyon National Park Matt Vandzura says the NPS is continuing the search in a limited way. They’re using a zodiac boat (inflatable motor-raft) on the Colorado River. He says that’s the only search crew out right now.

Tomorrow it will move to a “limited continuous mode of searching.” That includes a public education outreach campaign, asking hikers and tour groups for possible leads, and having park rangers keep their eyes open on their regular shifts.

Vandzura says search crews collected items confirmed to belong to Standefer & Merrell as recently as Wednesday.

The family announced late Tuesday night that the Merrell company would be providing climbers and rescuers and that the family of the missing boy was offering a military-grade drone to assist in the search. The Merrell company is owned by Wolverine Worldwide.

Read the full family statement released Thursday morning below:

LouAnn Merrell, the wife of Randy Merrell, was with her husband, stepgrandson and the boy's mother on a multi-day hike in a remote area of the Grand Canyon on Saturday when she and the boy lost footing and were swept away by water. (LouAnn Merrell has been previously referred to as Lou-Ann, which is how she identifies on her Facebook page, but a spokesman for the families of both hikers says it is spelled without a hyphen).

But the intense search for Merrell and Standefer continues, said spokeswoman Robin Martin.

The National Park Service on Wednesday again deployed three ground search teams, a helicopter, a drone and an inflatable motor raft.

Ground search crews have spent the night at the bottom of the canyon for several nights, although their searches only take place in daylight.

Martin said weather has also been about the same as the last few days, with clear and breezy daytime temperatures in the mid-90s and overnight lows in the 50s.

The Grand Canyon is consistently one of the most popular attractions in the United States, drawing nearly 6 million people last year.

But the park's nearly 2,000 square miles, steep cliffs and mesmerizing views have often led to accidents and deaths.

The park service reported over 1,000 medical emergencies, 15 deaths and 318 search and rescue incidents in 2015, the last readily available data.

The remote area where the family was hiking on multi-day backpacking trip is at the bottom of the canyon near the North Rim, a much-less visited area of the park.

Experts like Matthew Nelson, the executive director of the Arizona Trial Association and a former Grand Canyon backpacking guide, say hiking down to the Tapeats Creek area where the two went missing is arduous and requires at least a couple of days and some experience in backpacking.

Nelson said in an Associated Press interview on Tuesday that the creek where Merrell and Standefer went missing can get heavy water flow after the winter, when snow from the North Rim melts and travels down the canyon.

He said that area is particularly hot during the day and doesn't cool off very much because of the geology.

"This is one of the gems of backpacking in the Grand Canyon," Nelson said.

Standefer's classmates at McCallie continue to pray for his safe recovery.

Here's the full text of the news release the National Park Service sent NewsChannel 9 on Thursday afternoon:

"After five days of extensive searching, today the National Park Service (NPS) is reducing the scale of the search for two hikers who went missing at Grand Canyon National Park on Saturday, April 15. The hikers are identified as Lou Ann Merrell, 62, and Jackson Standefer, 14.

On Saturday evening, April 15 the NPS received an alert from a personal locating beacon in a backcountry area of Grand Canyon National Park near the confluence of Tapeats Creek and Thunder River. An Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter flew to the location where a hiking party reported two members of their party missing.

The party reported that Merrell and Standefer were last seen crossing Tapeats Creek below the confluence with Thunder River when they lost footing and were swept down Tapeats Creek.

Beginning the morning of Sunday, April 16 and lasting through the end of the day Wednesday, April 19, the NPS searched extensively in both the Tapeats Creek area and the area of the Colorado River below the confluence with Tapeats Creek (approximately Colorado River Mile 134). Three teams (approximately 20 people total) searched ground areas along Tapeats Creek and the Colorado River each day staying in the field overnight. In order to cover areas that were inaccessible to the ground searchers, each day the NPS also utilized a helicopter and crew, an unmanned aerial system (UAS) and operator, and an inflatable motor raft and associated search team.

Arizona Department of Public Safety and Uintah County Search and Rescue (Uintah County Sheriff’s Department) assisted in the search.

Today the NPS will focus search efforts along the Colorado River below the confluence with Tapeats Creek with a search crew operating an inflatable motor raft. If no additional information is discovered or received today, starting Friday April 21 the search will continue in a limited and continuous mode focused on public outreach and search efforts during regular backcountry patrols. The NPS will continue to follow up and investigate any new information that it receives.

Lou Ann Merrell is described as a 62 year old female, 5’5”, 145 lbs, blonde hair, and green eyes. She was last seen wearing khaki zip-off shorts, a blue/green button down short sleeve shirt, and blue water shoes size 8 ½. She was carrying a homemade blue backpack with a maroon fleece and hiking poles attached.

Jackson Standefer is described as a 14 year old male, 5’8’, 105 lbs with black hair. He was last seen wearing black Nike shorts, a long sleeve white Columbia t-shirt with “COLUMBIA” written on the sleeve, and navy blue Chaco sandals size 10. He was carrying a new sage green backpack.

The Tapeats Creek area is located in a remote backcountry area of Grand Canyon National Park. The area is popular with overnight backpackers in spring and fall. Photos of the Tapeats Creek area at available on the park’s Flickr site at: http://bit.ly/2o4X8Xo

A missing persons investigation is on-going. No further information is available at this time."

This is a developing story. Depend on NewsChannel 9 to bring you updates as we get them.

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