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Search to continue for missing woman

| Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 9:46 a.m.

More than 100 trained volunteers will arrive in Rector this morning to aid in an ongoing search for a Cook Township woman who has been missing since Tuesday.

The family of Deborah Joan Pritts learned late Friday afternoon that their now three-day search will be bolstered today by the Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group -- a Pittsburgh-based volunteer organization with 15 years of experience in locating lost and injured people.

Pritts, 55, disappeared from her home near Rector between 6 p.m. Tuesday and 10 a.m. Wednesday, state police at Greensburg reported.

Bloodhounds tracked her scent Wednesday to the edge of the headwaters of the Loyalhanna Creek behind her home along Route 381. Yesterday afternoon, divers from the Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department searched the frigid waters, but they were unable to locate her.

"Sometime during the night, she went outside and just disappeared," said Thomas Pritts, the missing woman's husband.

Pritts, a retired engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said his wife had been ill and was taken by ambulance Monday morning to Latrobe Area Hospital after she had become dehydrated.

She was released on Tuesday, "and I brought her home," he said. "She was in a good mood."

That evening, he went out to pick up her prescription medication "and she said she just wanted to relax and go through her mail."

That was the last he saw of her.

Police have described Deborah Pritts as 5 feet tall, 100 pounds with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was wearing blue jeans and a green-and-black argyle sweater. She is disabled and may have been disoriented, police said.

Several searchers yesterday described the woman as frail and noted that she has been battling serious illnesses for more than 10 years.

A set of wireless headphones that Deborah Pritts often wore was found lying near a fence beside a small tributary of Loyalhanna Creek, which flows past one part of the family's yard.

Bloodhounds, however, tracked her scent to the creek itself in another section of the property.

But both waterways were swollen by heavy rains at the time of Deborah Pritts' disappearance, searchers said, fearing that she may have been swept away in the torrents.

The rising waters also hampered their efforts on Thursday, when the fields and wooded areas around the streams became submerged in the rushing water.

"Thursday was just a day of waiting," said Colleen Pritts, the missing woman's daughter-in-law.

State police are asking property owners with adjacent tributaries, creeks or waterways to check their properties regularly for any sign of the missing woman or her personal belongings.

A group of more than three dozen neighbors, friends and family members has been aiding in the search and offering support to the grief-stricken family.

"There has been a real outpouring," said the Rev. Paul Poerschke, of St. James Lutheran Church in Ligonier, the family's minister. "A lot of people have been coming by to help and bringing food."

The Salvation Army's Disaster Response Unit delivered food to searchers yesterday.

"Everyone has just been wonderful," Thomas Pritts said.

While the search efforts have proven fruitless so far, yesterday ended with the promise of new resources when Don Scelza arrived at the family's home to offer the services of the Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group.

"We can provide 100 to 150 people to conduct a foot-and-dog search," Scelza said, noting that state police had contacted the Pittsburgh-based group.

The all-volunteer, not-for-profit search and rescue group has offered support to government agencies responsible for lost and injured people for more than 15 years at no charge in southwestern Pennsylvania and contiguous areas of West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland.

At home in wilderness and suburban settings, the group provides highly trained field teams and search management personnel and also can offer an escalated response to an ongoing search.

They plan to start in a circle from the Pritts' home and break it up into areas when their search gets under way today, Scelza said. "We know generally how far a person can go. I'm guessing it will be within a mile to a mile-and-a-half radius."

The group of neighbors, friends and family that has been searching for Pritts will assist the trained searchers.

"We'll give each of the trained searchers a group of volunteers," he said.

Searchers will meet at St. Michael's of the Valley Episcopal Church in Rector at 8 a.m.

"This will be a more organized search," Colleen Pritts said. "This way, we'll know that everything has been covered."

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