It’s grim work, but someone has to do it.
And it’s been a busy season. Divers and water rescuers recovered the bodies of at least eight men between May and October this year in the metro-east.
Swansea firefighters compose the area’s only taxpayer-supported dive team, putting them in high demand when underwater expertise is needed. Unfortunately, when that expertise is needed, it’s usually always for a recovery and not for a rescue.
“It’s pretty much a given around here that we’re not going to be a rescue diver,” Swansea Fire Chief John McGuire said. “There might be a chance you find somebody quickly, but probably 99 percent of the time it’s going to be a recovery.”
It was our concern that if something happened, we didn’t have a way to handle it.
Swansea Fire Chief John McGuire
It’s discouraging, but it’s reality. And McGuire said reality led the department to create its dive team in the first place 15 years ago.
“If you look at a map, there’s over 35 lakes and ponds just in Swansea. A lot of those were developing with subdivisions,” he said. “It was our concern that if something happened, we didn’t have a way to handle it.”
‘DON’T LOOK AT THEIR FACES’
There’s nothing glamorous about divers doing water recoveries, but Capt. Richard Drury, the department’s dive master, said it’s better than the alternatives: Bodies were recovered by imprecisely casting hooks into the water to snag whoever drowned, or just wait for bloated corpses to float up on their own.
Being a member of the dive team is not one of the most graceful things to do, but you do it because you’re providing, in a way, a service to that family or that victim.
Swansea Assistant Fire Chief Christopher Tell
It’s not that recovering a body using divers is any less traumatic, it’s just more humane for victims and their families. And following a simple rule taught in training helps divers:
“Don’t look at their faces,” McGuire said.
To avoid that, divers who’ve located bodies secure them in body bags and rescue baskets before bringing them to the surface.
“Being a member of the dive team is not one of the most graceful things to do, but you do it because you’re providing, in a way, a service to that family or that victim,” Assistant Fire Chief and dive team member Christopher Tell said.
“It was shallow enough for our guys to get in there, move the mower and get him in the ambulance,” McGuire said. “They worked him aggressively just to make sure. Because you never know. You don’t lose anything by trying.”
Jason Whitaker, who in addition to being a certified diver also is a paramedic, tried resuscitating Conner LaPointe, 18, of New Athens, in the ambulance from the pond all the way to Memorial Hospital, but LaPointe was dead. “You don’t want to stop,” Whitaker said.
Two drowning victim recoveries or so per year is average, but on Sept. 23, Swansea divers were dispatched to two different drownings at the same time. Six days later, they were called out again.
Two recovery calls per year is about average, Drury said. Until Sept. 23, the divers had never been summoned twice in the same day.
Just six days later, the team was on the road again to help crews recover the body of Juan Carlos Sanchez-Mora. Sanchez-Mora, 34, of Radom, jumped or fell off a boat in the Washington County Lake State Conservation Area on Sept. 29. He suffered a head injury when he struck the boat’s propeller.
Divers searched the murky water at night during a thunderstorm for hours before Sanchez-Mora’s body was located.
READY TO HELP
Swansea firefighters aren’t the only underwater recovery and rescue divers in the region. The most notable—and last remaining—of the area’s private dive groups is the O’Fallon Underwater Search and Rescue Team. OUSART Commander Brian Powell said the team was formed in 1969 after the body of a young girl who drowned was recovered using the rope and hook method.
He said the girl’s family was horrified at what they saw, and rescuers decided there had to be “a more humane method of recovering drowning victims.”
Even though using divers to recover bodies is more humane, it’s still “not for the faint of heart,” Powell said.
We have people that come out that the first time they see a body come out of the water, it doesn’t sit well with them. It is what it is. You go and do your job. You go do it and you make sure everybody gets home. If we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?
OUSART Commander Brian Powell
“We have people that come out that the first time they see a body come out of the water, it doesn’t sit well with them. It is what it is,” Powell said. “You go and do your job. You go do it and you make sure everybody gets home. If we don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”
No one, if not for Swansea firefighters or OUSART members.
That’s why Sept. 23 was so bizarre. With Swansea firefighters called off one recovery to handle what would be another, no one else except OUSART was available to search the murky pond near Troy for 46-year-old Richard A. Brown of Collinsville.
“We pretty much go wherever we’re needed,” Powell said. “We don’t charge. We’re a non-profit organization.”
When there are only two dive teams in the metro-east, it’s never a contest, McGuire said. “We need all the help we can get.”
Divers’ work underwater is critical, but sometimes techniques—and technologies—that have nothing to do with diving assist in recoveries.
Techniques used in water recovery missions include using sonar technology and employing software to simulate water conditions to help divers refine search areas. Sometimes, cadaver dogs also are used to help searchers.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which sometimes assists local crews in search and recovery missions on the Mississippi River, uses software that simulates river conditions to help crews refine search areas.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources also assists in searches using sonar equipment. Trained cadaver dogs also have been deployed to help searchers make the most of their time underwater.
On Oct. 7, Belleville firefighters aboard a red aluminum rescue boat took a few laps around a live victim bobbing in one of Bicentennial Park’s ponds before approaching the man and quickly hoisting him to safety.
The victim was actually Engineer Tony Higgins and the firefighters who rescued him were practicing. According to Fire Chief Tom Pour, firefighters complete some type of water training at least quarterly.
“We bring trained personnel to assist neighboring departments who may have the equipment,” Pour said. “It’s never an opportune time when the call comes in. We offer to help everybody.”
It doesn’t matter whether it’s ice or it’s water, the biggest thing is, people go out and do stuff alone that they shouldn’t do alone. And they have an accident and can’t get the help they need, they’re in trouble.
Belleville Fire Chief Tom Pour
Authorities took the department up on that offer on June 19, when Belleville’s rescue boats and rescue crews were instrumental in the rescue of 38 Centreville residents after persistent heavy rains left their neighborhood submerged in water up to four feet deep.
Those neighbors in Centreville couldn’t help it when the waters rose, but with ice season approaching, Pour said educating citizens about water and ice hazards is as important as emergency crews’ ability to respond to them.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s ice or it’s water, the biggest thing is, people go out and do stuff alone that they shouldn’t do alone,” Pour said. “And they have an accident and can’t get the help they need, they’re in trouble.”
Rescue leaders agree: It’s good to have the skills needed to respond when rescuers are called. But it’s better when those calls never come in at all.
Search and rescue methods
Divers can use a variety of methods during a search-and-rescue operation, according to the National Association of Rescue Divers. They include:
- QUICK SEARCH, which is done by the first arriving divers. It is used when a victim went under close to shore on a pier and is very good at rapidly finding a victim.
- SNAG SEARCH is also a rapid quick search and is performed by one diver. The search is very effective for finding large objects quickly such as cars, boats or aircraft that enter the water.
- SPIRAL or CIRCULAR SEARCH can be done in low or high visibility. First the direction of search is determined before entering the water. A bottom marker is set to mark the center of the first area covered. A stake is placed to act as center point. The diver attaches his line to the center point. This line can be up to 100 feet in length. A starting and finishing line is then run from the anchor out.
- CIRCULAR PIVOT SEARCH is done using a pivot method, by two divers connected by a piece of rope that governs the size of the circle. The size is based upon visibility, which can be from arms length to several feet.
- SEMI-CIRCULAR SEARCH or FIGURE EIGHT SEARCH can be done in low or high visibility. It is done normally by two divers at arms length apart for low visibility or further for better visibility. The divers are connected by a piece of rope. One diver acts as the pivot while the other diver searches in a circular motion.
- OUT AND BACK is a much faster and easier search. When visibility is good the pattern can be enlarged by using several divers on line. In low visibility the search should not be done by over four divers. Remember it is always better to have multiple search operations going on than to have a big mess underwater.
- PARALLEL SEARCH works well as a quick search from a shore line. The direction of the search is decided prior to entering the water. A maximum depth and time should be set also before the dive and can accommodate any number of divers.
- GRID SEARCH is the most accurate type of search to use, but it is also the most time-consuming. It is a complicated search method that is hard to employ and requires experienced divers with lots of training in its procedures.
- PIVOT BOARD SEARCH. The pivot board is made of a steel plate, to which a piece of pipe is welded, sticking up, with an eye bolt on top. The diver wishing to search an area with it lowers the board and attaches a line to the eye bolt.
SOURCE: National Association of Rescue Divers