In absence of sight, dive team has the right touch

Members of the St. Charles Parish Dive Team hit the water during a search earlier this year.

Searching for an item in total darkness typically ranks among the most futile — and frustrating — of actions, even in the comfort of one’s own home.

Now, imagine that search taking place underwater, without the ability to see right in front of you, much less any surrounding danger. Also, there are much higher stakes attached to what’s sought.

The members of the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office dive team wouldn’t trade that reality. The search and recovery group is called to action whenever it’s suspected that evidence or something of significance to a criminal case has been dumped into a body of water. It specializes in darkwater, or blackwater, diving, in which there is zero visibility.

“We don’t dive in safe environments,” said Lt. Christian Johnson of the dive team. “It’s dark water. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. Everything is about touch and feel, and everyone fills a role.”

Though the environments aren’t safe, the divers’ experience, teamwork, and the precautions they take make each venture “safer than it looks” for the officers.

“(It’s safer) because we know what we’re doing,” said Johnson, who noted the group will never enter water unless there’s at least a group of four present on the team. One of the divers is the primary searcher looking for the objective. A secondary diver is on deck to go in to assist him, primarily when the potential object is found. There’s a safety diver present and ready to conduct a rescue in case something goes wrong.

Finally, there’s a tender, who coordinates the event and guides the divers.

“He basically runs the show, because he can see the big picture,” Johnson said.

A dive team truck is always deployed at the site as well, full of all of the safety and search equipment necessary.

Of course, in a situation where one cannot rely on their eyesight, how can one ever hope to find something in these often seemingly limitless bodies of water?

“Out here in St. Charles Parish, most of our geographic footprint is aquatic, so given that, criminal activity can certainly spill over (into the water),” said team member Adam Coley. “We have some technological tools that help us narrow down specific areas to get the diver in the water. Then it’s all by feel.”

Still, the process is not often quick or effortless.

“It can go hours or even days,” Coley said. “Until we find what we’re looking for, or rule out conclusively that it’s not there, we’re out there searching.”

The team recently hit the water to find and retrieve a vehicle that had been submerged in the Bonnet Carre Spillway — and actually found another nearby in the process. While these cars were abandoned and nobody suspected to be injured or lost in this case, things aren’t always as fortunate. The dive team treats each case with the possibility someone could be in need of rescue, or in a worst case scenario, a body that needs to be recovered.

“There are very few times we’ve actually gone in believing we’d find a body, but we always take steps so we know for sure,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cpl. James Grimaldi. “It’s always done as a precaution.”

Coley, who began diving in 1993, said the team is transitioning to upgrade its capabilities for rescue and recovery during high water events.

One method of providing the best assistance possible in emergency situations has been to undergo training and work in coordination with other local agencies in order to pool resources and skillsets.

“Our dive capabilities might exceed another agency, and their agency might have better boats or better aircrafts,” said Coley.

The cause is an important one to Mark Michaud, a veteran search and rescue diver and retired officer of the Slidell Police Department, who has donated sophisticated sonar equipment and has helped coordinate and train the cooperative teams.

“We’ve put together a metropolitan group, so if something happens we have all worked together,” he said.

The team also recently received a $5,000 donation from Bayer crop science purchase upgraded wet suits.

Multiple dive team members voiced that the chance to rescue and save the life of someone in need would yield the most rewarding feeling possible for the task they take on.

But even in a tragic situation, where a life has been lost and a body is found, these efforts carry great weight.

“It’s good to give closure to people,” Johnson said. “You hope to never have to find someone’s lost their life, but it’s better to know than to leave it unanswered.”

 

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