Profile: Heroes of the deep
THE DANGERS OF THE JOB
When the team began 14 years ago, divers used personal diving equipment on calls. Team members worked off equipment donations in the early days, but after being awarded a number of grants, the team transitioned from personal equipment to purchased equipment.
The dive team toolbox contains everything from lift bags for lifting submerged vehicles to a rover, a self-propelled video camera. Divers utilize wet suits and dry suits, which are air tight in the case of HAZMAT situations.
As the dive team has a mutual aid agreement with local law enforcement agencies, as well as across the state, the team may not be familiar with the water at the scene of the call.
“You really don’t know what you’re getting into, which is why we have the dry suits. They can’t protect from snake bites, but they can protect from bacteria,” Heathcock said.
Divers sometimes deal with oil and gas leaking from a submerged vehicle, which can burn and cause irritation. Bodily fluids from drowning victims also require the team to don dry suits.
“People don’t realize the contaminants in the water. There’s a lot of waters that may seem clean. It may be fine, and you and your kids may go swimming in this water, and it’s clear to you, but we get down there and stir up the sediment,” Barnett said.
The team uses sonar around the target area to obtain a visual of what’s below the water.
“With recreational diving, you’re going to pick when you dive, where you dive and how long you dive. We don’t pick that. We end up in water sometimes where we can’t see, period. It’s called black water,” Barnett said.
Underwater hazards include trees and stumps, which can entangle a diver, as well as currents, temperature and depth of the water. When working to lift a submerged car, the car potentially could shift and fall during the process.
“We try to stay as safe as we can. It’s kind of like out here on the street. You try to stay safe, but if you get shot at, you get shot at. There’s only so much you can do to train and try to react to it,” Barnett said.
Each diver makes the personal decision to dive or cover land support during a call.
“You have to make sure they’re comfortable with it. They can be nervous, and it’s to be expected,” Barnett added. “Looking for a victim, it’s already got your adrenaline rushing. It’s OK to be that way; we’re all right with that. It’s when you get to the point that you can’t function or can’t operate; they have to make the decision because we don’t always know that. We don’t know what’s going on in their minds.”
DEALING WITH CALLS
When a Montevallo man drowned in May 2012, the dive team responded to recover the body. Kelley, a Montevallo resident, grew up with the man and knew the family.
“I felt like I was helping the family. I let them know the process, what we were doing, step by step, and why it was taking so long,” Kelley said. “To the family, it took a very long time. In 10-15 minutes, we got him up, but to them, it took a lifetime. That was more personal for me.”
After being in the Marine Corps and working in the police department, Kelley said she has developed “that morbid sense of humor” to cope with her profession.
“When (the victim is) an adult, you can process better, but with a child, even those with the most morbid sense of humor (are affected),” she said. “They’re always affected by child recovery because most of them have children.”
Diver Ross Mixon, a firefighter with both Calera and Chelsea fire departments, is the father of four children under the age of 12. Wearing his black-and-pink Chelsea Fire “Blacks Out Breast Cancer” shirt, Mixon’s eyes grew glassy as he talked about June 7, 2011, when the dive team recovered a 2-year-old girl who drowned in a Mt Laurel lake.
“A lot of times, we’ll talk about it. Others go hunting, fishing and shoot,” Mixon said. “You’ve got to remember you didn’t put them in this situation. You’re there to help, but it stays with you.”
Each team member agreed that recovering a child’s body is one of the hardest parts of being on the dive team.
“When a body comes out, I don’t look. I focus on my diver to make sure he’s OK,” Sterling said. “With the kid in Mt Laurel, when they brought the body out, I went into diver mode and focused on my diver when they zipped the bag.”