Part 2 of “Underwater Evidence and Recovery” covers some of the search methods available to rescue and recovery dive teams.
Read Part 1: “Underwater Evidence and Body Recovery: Lakes and Bodies” here.
The divers each have different roles. In a three member team, one does the bagging and tagging and the other has primary responsibility to bring the evidence or a body back. The divers try to stay with the bag on the way up, so it doesn’t get snagged on rebar, fish hooks, or other debris known to be present in ponds and swamps. The large pond near my house has castoff evergreen trees around the edges – great hiding places for fish, but tough to work around when moving retrieval equipment near them.
One search method for remains thought to be in shallow, but cloudy, ponds is to form a ‘skirmish line.’ The team members lock arms and walk the area, to see if they can bump into the body. In deeper water, grappling hooks might be used if there is a suspicion that a body is snagged on a log or other large object. Sometimes, people drown in their cars after going off a road, and must be extricated before the car is towed out.
As upsetting as it might be to the families of missing loved ones, searches cost money. The men and women in charge of the searches must weigh their past experience in finding people under different circumstances and decide when to call it off officially.
Highly experienced divers have found bodies and evidence at a depth of fifteen feet, where it is extremely cold and almost pitch black. It’s not always possible to recover anything at that depth, with currents, storms, or toxic waste in the mix.
Searches are conducted with ropes because of the zero visibility. The bottoms of lakes are silky and murky and the divers see shades of dark. Lights don’t help because they bounce off particles in the water. The divers have to work by feel.
During training, already certified divers practice evidence recovery in clear water, then duplicate the exercise in black water. Some practice dives are done while wearing blackout masks. Trainees have been known to close their eyes and hum when getting used to the darkness. As one diver said, “It’s scary down there the first few times.” The job is definitely not for everyone. I certainly couldn’t do it!
The procedure after finding evidence or a body is to bag it while still in the water. The body bag has fine mesh on side to let the water out, but not the evidence. A design improvement created 6 points of attachment to lift the body bag, allowing more stability during the lift.
For a drowning, the divers buoy the body. For a homicide, the divers wait with a body bag and buoy it. Attaching a buoy allows for easier lifting.
Once out of the water, a record of the chain of custody is kept on the outside of the bag by the Medical Examiner.
Experts say that drowning deaths can be avoided by following some simple rules:
“Ninety percent of our fatalities could be prevented if they were wearing a life jacket (while boating),” North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Officer Hannah Shively explained.
If you see someone in distress, try and throw an object towards them, whether it’s a stick, fishing pole, cooler, or life jacket, to pull them to safety. Don’t let yourself or anyone else become a statistic.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at two Writers’ Police Academy events in North Carolina. Many thanks to the members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department for their informative presentations and to Lee Lofland for organizing the annual events.
Crime scene tape has been posted around your favorite big pond or lake and nobody can get on/in the water until it has been searched. What has happened? Perhaps a body has been sighted underwater by a swimmer, or a fisherman has snagged something suspicious on his hook. A violent crime may have been committed in the area and the police are looking for discarded weapon(s). Or a report has come in to the police station about a missing person, and that missing person may have been seen in the vicinity of the water. Law enforcement is already on the case and if the crime scene tape is up, along with officers conducting an investigation, then a dive team is most likely working your formerly peaceful spot.
The USA has a great many lakes and assorted other bodies of water, both natural and man-made. Just a few examples:
Alaska: over 3,000,000 lakes (yes, 3 million)
Minnesota: 10,000 lakes (it’s even written on the license plates)
New Jersey: 366 named ponds, lakes, and lagoons
North Carolina: 78 named lakes as well as several bays, sounds, and hundreds of ponds.
Texas: over 200 large lakes and reservoirs.
When that many bodies of water are part of the landscape, it makes sense that the Sheriff’s Department (County law enforcement) and First Responders have teams that specialize in underwater evidence and body recovery. Why the Sheriff’s Department? It’s not about deep pockets financing the operations, it’s all about jurisdiction and best use of available resources. Many large lakes cross town lines, and the Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction in all the towns in its County. No need to duplicate personnel, when prevailing thought is that one or two teams per County will be able to handle the job of underwater evidence and body recovery.
Note: the local Fire Department usually has a First Responder team on the site of any accident – they are trained for rescue. At some point, it will be determined whether it is a recovery or a rescue and/or if there is a need to preserve evidence. It’s usually a recovery rather than a rescue at a lake, because after a person spends ten minutes under the water without air, it becomes a recovery operation.
Are there enough on-the-water deaths to make certified-for-recovery dive teams necessary? Sadly, yes. The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project tracks those stats for the five biggest USA lakes. There were 99 deaths reported in 2016, 88 in 2017, and as of this writing, 47 so far in 2018 in the Great Lakes alone. North Carolina has reported 10 lake deaths so far in 2018.
Most of the time, the lake deaths are accidental, but on occasion, bodies are found because of a homicide.
A body will float after 72 hours, and continue to float for a couple of days. After that, the naturally occurring body gas is expelled and it will sink again. Bodies are often found fairly quickly, but a body gets like jelly if it’s been in the water for a while, complicating the collection process.
Cold water will preserve a body, and warm water will cause more rapid decay, so divers must work carefully in the warmer locales. Cadaver dogs can pinpoint the location of a body to speed up the work. It’s been discovered that the longer the body is in the water, the wider the smell arc for the dogs. It’s a little like a dead fish smell, more concentrated closer to the body.
If no cadaver dogs are available, the divers swim in ever bigger arcs from the chosen starting point onshore and they work in grid patterns. If the search area is large enough, one of the onshore/on boat team members keeps a map/record of the searched areas.
In general, when working in shallow water, the investigation and recovery can be accomplished by dive teams alone. In deeper water, it will be a combination of boats and dive teams that do the search and recovery.
Most dive teams have the same equipment. They dive with aluminum scuba tanks and 3200 pounds of air will last about an hour. The basic dive suit is worn for warmth and protection – below 10 feet, it’s cold, no matter what the weather is up top. They also have hazmat suits to dive with in toxic environments.
Buoys are color-coded and are released to show when the diver(s) need help or when marking the spot.
With the smallest team of 3 people, there are:
With a team of 11 people, at any given time, there are five people in the water.
It is protocol to always keep one diver on the surface, ready to assist under water or switch places with the diver already in the water. The “tender” stays on the surface (whether in a boat or on the shore) and directs the search using a rope. The tender signals by tugs; he/she lets the rope play out, and then gives more when needed.
The “tender” not only controls the line and the search pattern, but keeps track of the air time and the clock time on a log, which becomes the official record of the diver/search activity. If there is a new diver on the team, the tender tracks to see the average air use, an important stat to have when making sure a sufficient supply of air tanks is on hand for each team member. The tender can estimate the time/air left in the tanks in use after observing the previous pattern of intake by the newbie.
After spending time in the water, the divers will be dehydrated, another thing the tender keeps track of.
Stay tuned for Part 2: “Searches.”
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at two Writers’ Police Academy events in North Carolina. Many thanks to Lee Lofland for organizing the annual events, and to the members of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department for their informative presentations.
A Stokes basket is a metal wire (or plastic) litter used by First Responders in difficult terrain.
Originally designed by Charles Francis Stokes, a Navy Surgeon General in the early 20th century, these baskets have been updated to keep pace with our changing requirements. Once used primarily in mountainous areas with transport occurring on the backs of donkeys and horses, the appearance of helicopters on the historical scene expanded the ways in which rescues could be conducted.
After the person’s immediate first aid needs are tended to, he/she is fastened into the litter, and then the litter can be moved. In my own case, I had a ski accident that included a deeply lacerated arm. I was dripping blood onto the snow, but since I didn’t ordinarily need poles to ski, I thought I could ski down the rest of the mountain to the First Aid Station on my own, holding the injured arm in front of me.
Wiser heads than mine prevailed. The mountain rescue team wrapped my arm, lowered me into a Stokes basket, and strapped me in. I was towed about a half mile across a mogul field by a pair of guys from the Ski Patrol. It was a bumpy ride over that mogul field, but there was no other way to get me down to the waiting ambulance.
I was towed behind skis, but snowmobiles, horses, and ATVs have all been employed to get the injured through the woods or hill country.
With specially attached ropes and in limited situations, people can be also be lifted to safety by helicopter. Natural disasters sometimes cut people off from ground transportation, so people have been airlifted out of wildfires or flooded areas without the helicopter ever having to set down. Somebody on the ground helps the injured person get into the basket, attaches it to the pulley system, and then the helicopter takes them to safety. The photo shows the same Stokes basket (with demo dummy) and the single rope leading to the tie-down spot.
The view of the underside of the six-foot Stokes basket reveals the mesh insert that keeps the patient’s limbs from falling through the open steel frame. In addition, the dark blue insert provides some comfort and support to the upper body.
Stokes baskets are also used to rescue victims from confined spaces, like caves or collapsed buildings. I recently discovered that some baskets used in surface water rescue have floats attached. If used in mountain rescue, the litters might come with a lid/cover to either protect the person from falling rocks or keep the patient from falling out, should it tip.
Design improvements have included using multiple attachment points, separate hold-down cables, and powered extension hoists. The multiple attachment points can prevent the basket from spinning while being transported by helicopter. Powered hoists can be valuable during steep terrain rescues and/or if there is not enough manpower onsite to do the heavy lifting. The U.S. Navy has used the Stokes basket to transport patients through narrow corridors and doorways.
The close-up shot of the ‘bear claw’ shows the holes at the bottom through which the carabiners and ropes are attached; the other ends secured at the Stokes basket. The ropes attached to the vehicle that supplies the lifting power are secured at the top of the ‘bear claw.’
On the right: the rope is wound through the brake bar rack to more securely anchor the rope to the vehicle. Less slippage occurs with its use.
Ropes come in different strengths for different needs, so the ropes are different colors to keep it simple for the rescuers. Because of the incredible demands placed on the ropes (weight, tension, water, scorching heat, and freezing cold) the ropes need to be tested for soundness on a regular basis. Too much weight at any given time can compromise the integrity of the rope, but even with normal wear and tear, they are replaced every few years.
Life expectancy of the ropes seen in the photos is about seven years. Somebody’s life depends on that rope not snapping, but even at a cost of about $15.00 per foot, fire departments try to budget for replacement at about the five year point.
The type of rescue involving a Stokes basket/lifting with ropes is a low frequency, but high risk operation.
On land, firefighters are frequently called upon to handle rescues of this type. At sea, this job falls to the Coast Guard. They have the trucks/helicopters, equipment, and training to ensure the happy ending to an otherwise awful tragedy.
Taken by Patti Phillips during a Writers’ Police Academy demonstration in Wisconsin.