Alvin Nelson, 15 and Frank Johnson, 17, Missing Since 1961
Springdale's police chief is hoping to lay to rest a 50-year-long mystery with the help of a human skull fragment found in the Virgin River.
In 1961, a flash flood in the Zion National Park Narrows caught Boy Scouts and others in a group of outdoor adventurers by surprise on what had been a sunny September morning. The rush of water and debris claimed the lives of five people, but only three of the bodies were recovered - Scoutmaster Walter Scott of Murray, Steven Florence, 13, of Park City, and Paul Nicholes, 17, of Salt Lake City.
Two Eagle Scouts from Salt Lake City's East High School were never found, and Chief Kurt Wright said he thinks the salad-
plate-sized piece of bone may hold the answer to what became of one of them.
"In 2006, somebody found a partial skull in the Virgin River," Wright said. "It was a Virgin resident ... swimming in a swimming hole, where they go to cool off during the summer."
The parents of the two boys have since died, but Wright was able to track down a living sibling for each of the victims and received DNA samples from them this week, which he hopes will help identify whose remains the bone is from.
"It's a tough thing. Without that body, you don't really believe that they're gone," Holladay resident Doralee Freebairn, the sister of one of the victims, said this week. "My feeling's strong that it's my brother Alvin. But the DNA will tell."
Freebairn, now 65, was 15 when Alvin Nelson and his best friend, Frank Johnson, both 17, disappeared in the river.
"One of the girls who survived said they looked up and heard this horrible sound coming through the canyon," she said. "It was a beautiful day, before the storm moved in."
A Deseret News-Salt Lake Telegram story published a few days later described the arrival of the boys' grief-stricken parents as an air and ground search effort continued, even though the official rescue efforts had been called off the night before.
"We are not giving up hope - not as long as there is any chance the boys may be still alive," Nelson's mother told the newspaper.
The two mothers told the newspaper that Nelson and Johnson had received their Eagle Scout ranks the same day and were close knit.
"If anything happened to one or the other of them, they would stay together," the women told the newspaper.
According to the news report, the search stretched from the Narrows to the river banks west of St. George and on down to the river bottoms near Mesquite. Wright said the Park Service's records from the period are missing, so there is no government archival record about the effort.
Freebairn's children are all adopted, meaning she is the last surviving member of Nelson's immediate bloodline, Wright said.
Wright said he had shipped the recovered skull to the Utah Medical Examiner's Office for safekeeping, but when he learned of a program at the University of Texas that does free DNA matching to identify skeletal remains, the M.E.'s office shipped the bone plate back.
The police chief located Freebairn in spite of her married name change, and Johnson's brother, who lives in Bend, Ore. Johnson's DNA sample arrived Thursday by certified mail, Wright said, and the skull fragment and the DNA samples now are on their way to Texas for examination.
Freebairn said she hopes their eventually will be additional recovery efforts under the river's soil deposits, if it can be done without much cost.
The ill-fated Scout group was part of a wilderness expedition group called Socotwa, which was originally formed in the 1940s by a group of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members in Salt Lake's South Cottonwood Ward to run the rivers in what is now the Lake Powell area.
The group eventually broke its church ties and became a private company that traveled to Idaho and as far as New York for outdoors adventures, and at one time had more than 1,000 members, both boys and girls, according to a history of the group published by Roy Webb.
But a series of early 1960s tragedies, including the Narrows incident and a deadly vehicle accident south of Escalante, led to a dissolution of the group's river-running program.
Freebairn said her heart goes out to other parents whose children are lost when a body is never recovered, mentioning one boy who was lost in the Uintah Mountains.
"He's always in my prayers - and the family," she said. "I would like to get the word out that ... (if people lose someone) maybe they ought to look into getting into this DNA bank."
Freebairn said she wasn't exactly surprised by the bone's discovery.
"My husband and I had just been talking about (my brother) two days prior. Every so often I've had the idea I should call to see if any bones have been found," she said. "(But) Frankie was doing what he loved to do. I thought, 'He's outdoors where he loves to be.' So I thought I should just let it go."
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