CHURCH HILL, Tenn. (WJHL)- It’s been more than four weeks since five-year-old Summer Wells was last seen at her home on Ben Hill Road in the Beech Creek Community of Hawkins County.
“There’s been very limited ground searching since the scaling back,” said the incident commander of search operations, Captain Tim Coup. “Right now, in essence, pretty much all we’re going off of is anything credible, credible leads, credible information.”
As of Wednesday, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has received 970 tips, but none have led to the little girl at the center of the Amber Alert. When the call was put out, a massive ground search in the area around her home began, with crews from across Tennessee and surrounding states stepping in to help.
“In essence, in 48-72 hours we had a full-state notification and had people called in from multiple states away from here,” said Coup. “By the end of the 13-day search operations, we had 120 agencies and 1,194 people, searchers. That didn’t include the command staff, that didn’t include the logistics, that didn’t include TBI, FBI. That strict number was the ones that were out searching on the ground in Beech Creek.”
On June 27, the difficult decision to scale back the search was made.
“That was a decision I knew going in that there was a possibility I was going to have to make not knowing how many days, how many hours we were going to be up there searching for Summer,” said Coup. “Speaking with command staff, speaking to subject matter experts that were involved from other agencies out of state, getting together every day, putting all these things together to make the decision- I can say made the decision easier but it didn’t.”
As of Wednesday, Coup is still working with authorities as tips come in and is in touch with those who assisted from in and out of state.
“You may not see the big fancy command vehicles, you may not see the 1,194 people trudging around in Beech Creek but we are – the Sheriff’s department, law enforcement, the TBI – is still following up on leads,” Coup said. “Even if it is a ground that has already been searched one, two, multiple times. Being in contact with TBI, Hawkins County Sheriff’s Department, something they feel as though needs to be a credible search, need to go back in and look over things again, we’re right there with them hand-in-hand doing those things.”
He is still in touch with the different groups who assisted from across Tennessee and other states and says they are ready for when the call comes.
“Any credible lead that they have to ‘Hey, we need to go out here and search this area.’ We will,” said Coup. “I will have a team whether I have to call in a team from out of state, we will have somebody there to search those areas.”
Rescuers and crews spent hours looking for the little girl through the tough, mountainous terrain in the heat taking a toll on searchers.
“Obviously the ones that were out there searching, their physical stress was much more than the ones in the command staff,” he said. “We weren’t out there every day searching. We weren’t covering 4.6 square miles or 3,000 acres of land of treacherous land, steep inclines, steep terrain, treacherous terrain. You could tell, even four, five, six days in just through the terrain and the time that was spent already, the physical and mental stress.”
Along with the physical implications, mental and emotional stress lingers. Within the next two weeks, Coup is hosting an incident debrief with counselors on hand for all who were on the ground looking for Summer.
“Once everybody leaves over there, it’s a 20-minute drive from Beech Creek back to [The Church Hill Rescue Squad.] It takes a lot of time to think, go home, go to bed, wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘Well, did I search that area, did I search it well enough, did I send enough people in? Are there places that I missed?'” he said. “The simple fact of the family and other rescuers and everything is there has been no outcome. As search operations, we know no more than we did the night she went missing, so that alone psychologically, some of these searchers are [thinking] ‘I put in all this time and I wasn’t able to provide anything.'”
Coup is the captain of the Church Hill Rescue Squad and took 76 hours of paid time off from his job to work the search.
“I have 33 active members on my roster. Of the 33, I had 25 actively involved in the search for Summer Wells, leaving me eight members to cover our normal calls and routine bases,” Coup said. “A lot of these volunteers were scheduled to work the following day of Summer Wells going missing on Tuesday night. They took their own PTO time out. They took comp time, whatever they had to do. Knowing they wanted to be there, they had to be there.”
The service of those in Beech Creek is invaluable and hard to put a price tag on but Coup did break it down to give some perspective from his agency’s assistance.
“The national average value for one volunteer is $28.54 per hour, per person. Just in the operations alone for Summer Wells, our agency put in 2,648 man-hours,” he said. “That equals $75,573.92 worth of time spent by a volunteer.”
He isn’t sure how much his rescue squad spent on supplies and other expenditures from the search for Summer Wells, but he assured that his agency will not be put in the red because of it.
“That money is going to take away from other necessary expenditures, capital projects, replacing a front line rescue truck that we have down right now, it will put those things on hold. It will postpone those things from being done, but I’m fine with that,” he said. “To know that we can still day-in and day-out provide the services that the community and the people that live in Hawkins County paying their taxes for them to provide their services to them, we’ll continue to do it. If it means me paying out of my pocket to make sure these trucks are going on calls, I’ll do it.”
His rescue squad is also in charge of the reward fund for Summer. As of Tuesday, the account has $2,470 in it, but it does not include a $10,000 check and $25,000 check that are to be deposited if a credible tip leading to Summer’s return or recovery comes in. This brings the total to $37, 470.
If no leads or tips come in by December 31, the money will be donated to the Children’s Advocacy Center in Mosheim.
“That center, in essence, serves most of the lower end of Hawkins County in our area, and actually that center was utilized during the search,” he said. “The law enforcement side of it, they utilized that center for part of their work so our board of directors felt led that that is where that money should go to benefit other children in our area.”
If you would like to make a contribution to the reward fund for Summer Wells, you can go to any Civis Bank Branch and tell them you would like to donate to the Church Hill Rescue Squad’s Reward Fund for Summer Wells.