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Third body from July 4 plane crash near Brookings found

BBROOKINGS — Divers on Sunday found the body of 17-year-old Ryan Merker, finishing up the recovery of a tragic July 4 plane crash.

The Grants Pass teen's body was found 120 feet from the upside down wreckage of a Cessna 172, in 55 feet of water, and on the last dive of the day, around 11 a.m., authorities said.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel, who was in a support boat with Marine Deputy Ernie Fields, said there was a lot of relief.

Divers had previously recovered two other bodies from the site, but there was uncertainty about how long the effort to recover the third and final body could continue. The weather blew up again Sunday afternoon.

"It was an emotional day for all. Lot of relief. Lot of closure," Daniel said Monday morning.

Curry County Sheriff John Ward, who led the search effort along with Daniel, also expressed relief.

"It is by the grace of God that we were able to find Ryan after being missing in the ocean for over a month," he said in a release. "There is no explanation on how we were able to find Ryan other than unwavering determination and some help from above."

Any further investigation and salvage of the wreckage is now in the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board.

On the night of July 4, the plane crashed into the Pacific a half-mile offshore near Rainbow Rock north of Brookings, after pilot John Belnap took off at approximately 11 p.m.

Belnap, 46, his son Max, 17, and Merker were flying home to Grants Pass, where the boys were entering their senior year at Grants Pass High School.

Sunday's search was the first in nearly two weeks, following the recovery of the Belnaps, as ocean conditions were too rough.

Six divers from Clackamas and Multnomah counties in Oregon, and from Smith River, Calif., participated Sunday.

Ward and Daniel said dive teams made several dives, and on the last dive Merker's body was found on the edge of the search area, just outside the 120-foot rope use to guide divers.

After surfacing to switch tanks, divers went back to get the teen's body, which was then transported to the U.S. Coast Guard Station and delivered to Redwood Memorial Services.

Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com.