Among the ashes, search dogs find cremated remains of Santa Rosa loved ones

Two South Bay canine handlers are helping Sonoma County fire victims locate cremation ashes in the ruins of their homes.|

Somewhere within the layer of crackly, heat-bleached, almost granular ruins of Lenore Hansen’s country home north of Santa Rosa was all she had left of her younger daughter.

Erin Hansen had attended Piner High and was 30 years old and the mother of two sons when she died of cancer 10 years ago. Her mother kept her ashes in a box in her bedroom closet.

There wasn’t time to grab it when the firestorm bore down on Lenore Hansen’s 60-year-old, creekside house off Riebli Road the morning of Oct. 9.

“The wind. The wind,” she said with a shake of her head Sunday alongside her home’s remains.

As it was, she may have stayed longer than she should have the morning of the fire as she raced to round up her six cats and four dogs. It was agony to have to leave without finding her 14-year-old gray tabby, Gracie.

Once allowed to return and view the destruction of her house, it sank in that Erin’s ashes were in there, mixed with those of the walls and the furniture and everything else.

“Just the thought of her ashes winding up in a toxic-waste dump was more than I could handle,” she said.

She read in The Press Democrat about Lynne Engelbert, whose dog, Piper, is trained to find human remains, even ancient ones. Two weeks ago, Engelbert and Piper voluntarily located in the debris of Curt Nichol’s home the cremated remains of the landscape architect’s parents.

Lenore Hansen contacted Engelbert, who lives in San Jose and is active in the Institute for Canine Forensics, and asked if she would come look for her daughter’s ashes.

Engelbert took part in remains searches following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2003 explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Earlier this year, she and Piper helped search for any sign of Amelia Earhart on Nikumaroro Island, northwest of Fiji.

She came to Sonoma County on Sunday with friend and fellow dog handler Kris Black of Los Gatos. Through the course of a long and emotional day, Engelbert, Black and their dogs found cremation ashes at the sites of four burned homes in and near Santa Rosa.

Prior to going to Lenore Hansen’s property, the women and their dogs were in Larkfield, helping out Brett Gripe. The retired police officer and his wife, Cheryl, deeply regretted having never scattered the ashes of his father, John Warren Gripe, a Marine Corps veteran of World War II who died in Santa Rosa in 2009 at the age of 85.

There are many things Brett Gripe hopes to find in the ruins of his house: among his collection of police and fire-department badges was the badge worn by Sebastopol’s first police chief, Ed Foster. His wife fled the house without her wedding ring.

But Gripe said he was certain his father’s ashes, contained in a tin box he kept in a closet beneath his home’s staircase, were “going to be the biggest needle in the haystack.”

Both Engelbert’s border collie and Black’s Belgian Malinois, Annie, clearly relished the challenge when they independently searched the rubble of the Gripe house. Both lay down around the same spot in the ruins, alerting their handlers they smelled human remains.

Aided by Santa Rosa archaeologist Alex DeGeorgey, Engelbert and Black carefully scooped up the ashes and placed them in plastic bags. The Gripes profusely thanked the trio, who accept no money for their services, and heaped affection on Piper and Annie. A few miles east of the remains of the Gripe home, Lenore Hansen was standing alongside the ashes of the house she’d cherished for 30 years when the two human-remains detection teams and the archaeologist arrived.

For her visitors’ benefit, she pointed to the part of her destroyed house where she kept, in a closet, the wooden box containing Erin’s ashes.

Engelbert went to her SUV and opened the door to a dog kennel. Lithe, eager Piper jumped out. She scooted to the remains of Hansen’s house, and sniffed.

Soon, the dog paused, then lay down. Engelbert praised her, and returned her to the car. Black then went to her SUV and released Annie from her crate. The athletic dog stepped briskly through the remains of Hansen’s house, laying close to where Piper had.

Hansen watched on her knees from just beyond the bare foundation as Engelbert and DeGeorgey knelt and used garden trowels to examine and remove debris.

To the untrained eye, ash is ash. But years of experience allow Engelbert to distinguish from household ash the texture and tan hue of cremated bone.

After a few minutes of careful searching in the area of what had been Hansen’s closet, Engelbert announced a discovery. With DeGeorgey’s help, she scooped Erin’s ashes into a bag.

At the sight, Lenore Hansen’s chin collapsed to her chest and she sobbed. Black and the grieving, relieved mother shared a long and tight embrace.

Hansen said later the recovery of her daughter’s ashes “brought some fresh grief as well.”

Engelbert was happy to have brought Hansen some peace.

“I cannot imagine losing one of my children and then losing them again,” she said.

Engelbert, a retired NASA Ames Research Center emergency management official, said, “I’ve thanked God for the opportunity, and ability, to help people when they need it the most. What a blessing.”

As she and the other helpers were leaving the ruins on Riebli Road, Hansen said she’d be there a while longer and call out some more for Gracie.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and

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