With every new hole they punched in the ice, a private search team was trying to bring hope to Robbie Reiner's family.
Using a submersible robot made by a Waterloo company, four people slowly worked their way down the Nith RiverThursday, cutting holes in the ice with a chainsaw and lowering in a probe to reach areas where divers can't go.
Their task was grim — trying to find the body of the five-year-old boy who is believed to have fallen through the ice on Boxing Day. After a four-day search by police was called off, the team knew their chances of finding anything in the fast-moving river were slim.
But they said they had to do something.
"I can't imagine being the parent of a child and seeing that nothing is going on, seeing that everyone else has given up," said Sam Madonald, owner of Deep Trekker, the company that makes the robot used Thursday.
"We're trying to give a little bit of piece of mind to the family, searching in places where the divers can't."
MacDonald was working with Bill Bolton, who runs a private, Kitchener-based search and rescue outfit called Attac. They were joined by a professional diver, Steve Tiernan of Tobermory, and a Reiner family friend who's a fellow diver and knows the river.
Bolton said he contacted the family last week and offered his help. He tracked down Macdonald through her work with Deep Trekker, and the pair met Wednesday to plan their approach. Tiernan heard about it on Facebook, and drove down to assist.
The search was a slow, bone-chilling process in temperatures that plunged to -17 C. Tiernan, wearing an ice survival suit and harnessed to a tree with a rope, went out on the ice to cut holes every six metres or so. The bitter cold, fast-moving current, and dangerous ice only added to their challenge. The group focused on a stretch of the Nith not far downriver from where Robbie is believed to have fallen in, looking around submerged trees and other natural barriers.
Madonald operated the basketball-sized robot remotely from the river bank, steering the device through the water and watching a live video screen on her yellow controller.
"It's very dangerous for a diver to go in here, but that's also the place where things tend to get caught up, and a more likely spot to find the young boy," Macdonald said. "This gives us eyes in the water. We have the perfect tool for this, and we're right here in Waterloo, so it just made sense."
Deep Trekker's submersible robots are used around the world by the aquaculture and nuclear industries, treasure hunters, environmental researchers and NASA. But Macdonald said this was the first time she'd been a part of a body recovery effort.
The search was called off late in the afternoon, after running out of battery power. It may resume next week, provided weather conditions co-operate. They say they'll continue to co-ordinate with police as needed.
Bolton said he had the blessing of Robbie's father, Bill, who was happy there was still some kind of search that was going on.
"I'd like to offer these people closure. I want them to know we've exhausted another means," Bolton said.
"It's a very slim hope, but it's better than what he had yesterday."