Witnessing the landfill site search for Corrie McKeague

Police officers search the landfill site at Milton in Cambridgeshire as part of the continuing investigation into Corrie McKeague's disappearance.
Picture Mark Westley

Police officers search the landfill site at Milton in Cambridgeshire as part of the continuing investigation into Corrie McKeague's disappearance. Picture Mark Westley

The mud and drizzle alone would make it a hateful job, but then you remember the white overalled police officers are meticulously searching tonnes of five-month old refuse for the body of a young man.

The latest phase of the search for missing airman Corrie McKeague means nine specially trained officers from Suffolk and Norfolk, under a team leader, will spend 10-hour days for up to 10 weeks at this landfill site near Milton, Cambridgeshire. They are sifting though 920 square metres of rubbish which was put in a hollow eight metres deep at the centre. A tracked digger eats into the mound, which is then spread out on a flat area of the site for the team to search through under odour controllers which pump out a scented mist – it’s bubblegum today.

Det Supt Katie Elliott explains the search to journalists

Det Supt Katie Elliott explains the search to journalists

The tip is organised so each day’s rubbish is put in one place, then covered in soil, so the operators FCC Environment know which bit of the site was in operation when refuse came in from the horseshoe area of Brentgovel Street, Bury St Edmunds, where Corrie was last seen on September 24.

Detective Superintendent Katie Elliott said the search was already being planned when they discovered one of the bins removed from the horseshoe that day weighed more than 100kg instead of the 11kg they had first been told.

Asked why the site had not been searched earlier, when Corrie’s phone signal suggested it had been in the dustcart, she said: “We tested the waste disposal lorry but the information we had was that the weight collected was 11kg. To come and search here, to do what you see today, for a phone wasn’t proportionate.

“We had a set of hypotheses – Corrie told people he was walking home.”

The search team walks along one of the specially built walkways to take a break while diggers spread the next load to be searched.

The search team walks along one of the specially built walkways to take a break while diggers spread the next load to be searched.

But having searched though thousands of hours of CCTV and spoken to all but two of the people seen in the area at the time, she said they could find no way for Corrie to have left the horseshoe unseen, so they began planning the search.

“It’s taken weeks of preparation,” she said. “We’ve got 10 officers out there in full protective kit.

“They had to build safe walkways, we had to have facilities down there so officers can put kit on and off in clean and dirty areas – refreshments, toilets.

“We had to prepare risk assessments with Health and Safety.”

Another load of five-month old refuse is prepared for the search team

Another load of five-month old refuse is prepared for the search team

While that was going on, she said officers rechecking information discovered the error on the bin weight.

“It was by going back to experts in the company who can read the raw data on their systems and were able to see it was over 100kg,” she said.

How sure is she that Corrie is there? “You don’t mount an operation of this kind lightly,” Det Supt Elliott said. “I have a degree of confidence that we’ll find Corrie here.

“If he’s here, we’ll find him.”

Misters help to reduce the smell with scented vapour

Misters help to reduce the smell with scented vapour

She said that if the search takes the full 10 weeks it will cost about £500,000.

Corrie’s dad Martin McKeague described his visit to the landfill site on Tuesday as ‘heartbreaking’ and wishes he could join the search.

“It was a very emotional day,” he said. “I’d like to thank Suffolk and Norfolk police on seeing how big a task they’ve ahead of them.

“I only wish I could be there to help them search through the rubbish. I certainly have the utmost respect for every individual searching that landfill.

“It looks like we will find Corrie in the landfill.”

He understands why the landfill has not been searched before now and added: “With the information it weighed 11kg I kept putting the possibility he was at the landfill out of my own head.

Corrie McKeague

Corrie McKeague

“But for the constant work by Suffolk Police’s Major Incident team to keep going back and questioning the data we wouldn’t be where we are now. I have the utmost respect for Suffolk and Norfolk police.”

He said he didn’t think the police involved in the case deserved some of the criticism meted out on social media and by some national newspapers.

“It really does get my blood boiling when people slate the Suffolk Constabulary when they don’t know what’s been going on in this investigation – it’s much more than I could tell you,” he said.

Corrie’s mum Nicola Urquhart said in a BBC interview: “We know we’re going to find Corrie in the landfill – it’s just a matter of time.

“With the bin weight of over 100kg, there’s just no way, realistically, that Corrie wasn’t in the bin. Regardless of how he ended up in there, I don’t understand how the process has allowed him to get to landfill.”

She has told some media that police ‘handed the site back’, and it was only luck that more rubbish was not put on top.

Suffolk Poice said today: “When an initial decision not to search the landfill was made we remained in contact with the site who had identified where the waste had been deposited. They placed nothing further on top of this.

“Had anything further been deposited we would have encompassed this in the current search.”

Any information relating to Corrie’s disappearance should be passed to the incident room on 01473 782019. Alternatively you can call 101 and ask to speak to the team.