By Dylan J. Darling

The Bulletin

The wife of a Corvallis man who drowned Memorial Day on the Metolius River wonders whether better cellphone reception could have helped her.

Billie Furuichi, 70, stood on Bridge 99, which crosses the river about 7 miles north of Camp Sherman, on May 26 and watched her husband, Isamu “Sam” Furuichi, 66, fly-fish below. Sam, wearing waders and standing in the chilly river, stopped to change a fly. He stumbled.

Catching his balance, he waved to his wife and started to walk toward her, only to misstep into a deep hole. He fell in, and the current carried him away.

“He was gone in a flash,” Furuichi said Thursday.

Frantic, she ran down the riverbank looking for him while dialing 911 on her cellphone. She dialed it 20 times, but because of spotty cell coverage around Camp Sherman, her calls for help didn’t go through. Eventually she came across some campers who drove about 20 miles to find cell service and finally connect to 911 about an hour after Sam Furuichi fell into the river.

A search and rescue team found his body 2½ miles downstream the following afternoon.

While Furuichi doesn’t know whether better cell reception would have saved her husband of 22 years, whom she met in Japan and brought back to the States, she does think it could potentially aid others in need of help in and near Camp Sherman.

“I am really, really interested in having cell coverage up in that area,” she said.

Out of service

Furuichi isn’t alone in wanting better cell service in Camp Sherman. Chief Roger Johnson of the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District would like to see cell coverage improve there, but it’s been a controversial topic in the unincorporated Jefferson County community.

“Some of the people (in Camp Sherman) like it because it is not connected,” he said Friday. “Some don’t want to see cell towers and constant connectivity up there.”

There’s a pay phone outside the Camp Sherman Store, but it hasn’t worked for more than a year. So last year the fire district installed an emergency land-line phone at the fire hall about a mile away from the store.

“But not everyone knows that that phone is there,” Roger White, who owns the Camp Sherman Store & Fly Shop with his wife, said Friday.

White said he’s trying to get the pay phone working again, and he wants better cell service. He’s even looked into the possibility of having a cell company build a tower on the land he leases from the U.S. Forest Service for the shop. There haven’t been any takers.

Coverage areas

Two cellphone providers have considered building towers and improving cell service in Camp Sherman in the past, but there haven’t been any recent proposals, said Jean Nelson-Dean, spokeswoman for the Deschutes National Forest. National forestland surrounds the community.

One of the companies was Verizon, she said, but Nelson-Dean didn’t know the other. White said U.S. Cellular had also considered a tower near Camp Sherman. A U.S. Cellular spokeswoman didn’t return calls Friday.

While not familiar with whether Verizon has a potential interest in putting a cell tower near Camp Sherman, Scott Charlston, a Verizon spokesman, did speak in general terms about how the company decides to extend or improve its wireless network.

“Clearly, it is a priority (to be) where lots of people live, where lots of people work and lots of people play,” he said.

Camp Sherman has a couple of hundred regular residents, but it swells to thousands during summer, particularly holiday weekends, Deputy Dave Blann of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said Friday.

Blann, who heads up Jefferson County’s search and rescue unit, lives in Camp Sherman, and he was in charge of the search for Furuichi after he fell into the Metolius. Personally, Blann said he would like to have better cellphone coverage where he lives and works.

“It would be a great help to search and rescue if we could talk to the victim or reporting party (without them having) to drive 20 minutes to get coverage,” he said.

Like Billie Furuichi, Blann doesn’t know whether a quicker call to 911 would have saved Sam, who was a master chef at Sada Sushi & Izakaya in Corvallis. But it would have brought relief to Billie Furuichi to know that help was on the way.

Calling for help

Cellphones can be crucial in a search-and-rescue mission, potentially providing the location of people who are lost or missing.

When people with a newer smartphone call into Deschutes County 911, a dispatcher immediately knows GPS coordinates for where they are, said Lt. Scott Shelton, head of search and rescue for the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office . A Deschutes County Search and Rescue member has also developed a program in which someone who is lost clicks on a link in a text and soon rescuers know the person’s location.

But such technological tricks only work where there is a strong cell signal. Similar to Camp Sherman, there are plenty of places where people go to recreate near Bend that are out of cell service or have weak reception.

Just last Sunday three hikers called 911 around 12:15 p.m. to report they were lost about five miles from the Mirror Lake Trailhead off the Cascade Lakes Highway. Rachelle Nichols, 30, and Brandy Fratto, 33, both of Bend, and Kristin Brenner, 31, of Eugene, were in a place where cell coverage can be spotty, so searchers asked them to stay put, Shelton said.

“A lot of times we’ll just have (people who are lost) hold still because it is easier for us to find someone who is staying still than to find a moving target,” Shelton said. Particularly if lost people move in and out of cell service.

Shelton and Blann said people going into the backcountry shouldn’t rely on a cellphone as a lifeline — they need to be ready to take care of themselves. Blann pointed out that the “Ten Essentials” list for outdoor adventurers, which includes a map, compass, extra clothes and extra food, doesn’t include a cellphone.

“It’s a handy tool, but you can’t hang your hat on it,” Blann said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,