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Top 10 stories of 2016: No. 4, large scale search preceded discovery of missing woman's body

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Days of searching for a missing Wisconsin woman came to a tragic ending in March.

The body of 23-year-old Marya Christiansen was found March 16 inside her van, which authorities said had plunged off the Trenton Island boat launch into the Mississippi River's back channel.

Law enforcement from both sides of the river joined volunteers in the search for Christiansen after she went missing March 12. The Hager City woman was last seen in Red Wing after a night out with friends.

Searchers scoured the river valley for four days in hopes of turning up any sign of Christiansen. The search ended after authorities, using sonar technology aboard a boat, detected what appeared to be a submerged vehicle in the backwaters.

Hours later, Christiansen's white Dodge Caravan was hoisted from the waters.

The search effort included the help of the nonprofit organization United Legacy, which led the effort. More than 130 volunteers aided in the search on the day Christiansen's body was found.

According to a Pierce County Sheriff's Office accident report, deputies concluded she was negotiating a curve in the road while heading east on Highway 63 and drove off the roadway into a ditch, continued over an embankment and into the river.

The van was found submerged upside-down against a bridge pillar, according to the report.

"The condition of the driver during this event is unknown but toxicology results show a (blood-alcohol concentration) of 0.263 at time of death," the report states.

The search for the 23-year-old mother of two involved the Pierce County Sheriff Water Patrol, Wisconsin State Patrol, Medical Examiner's Office, Red Wing Fire and Rescue, Goodhue County Sheriff's Office, Goodhue County Sheriff's Office Dive and Rescue, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Civil Air Patrol and Siewerts Towing and Recovery.

Although many people from the community assisted in helping find Christiansen, the incident was Goodhue County Sheriff's Office Dive and Rescue's first official action in the water, blindly searching for a body and a van flipped upside down.

The $36,000 water safety grant the county received in fall 2014 allowed Goodhue County Sheriff's Office to purchase dive equipment. Today, the team consists of the six divers and seven dive tenders.

Since the first dive, team members have been practicing and training for their next call. Whether it's item recovery, a drowning victim, or a person or vehicle fallen through ice, the team is prepared for anything.

"It's not like diving in the Caribbean, it's very limited. Everything is pretty much done by feel," said Steve Sutton-Brown, investigator and dive team leader.

Each diver faces a vigorous set of training. From learning basics on recovering items, such as a weapon, to finding a body underwater and lifting an object, the team works to ensure each diver is mentally prepared, he said.

In February, divers learned how to adapt to the changing seasons by becoming ice-certified.

"Diving through the ice is a whole separate set of diving skills," Sutton-Brown said.

Despite cold conditions, the stronger spring current in the Mississippi River and an upside down vehicle, the team completed its first dive efficiently within two hours.

"The operation was a difficult but successful recovery due to the level of training and dedication by the dive team members," said Scott Powers, sergeant with the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office.

Rod Roberts, assistant dive team leader, discussed how challenging the job can be, not only for the body but for the mind.

"When you can see what you're doing, it's a lot of fun. When you're diving on the unknown, it's a mental challenge."

Today, the team focuses on training and challenging each member to be ready for any scenario. "The training is crucial to anything anybody would do," Roberts said. "You get a feel for what you're doing by building those skills and base knowledge."