Body Recovery:  Bringing Someone’s Loved One Home

By: Wendell Nope

There was a day some years ago when I got the phone call I had hoped never to receive as a Public Safety Diver. Our Dive Team Commander said words to the effect of, “… get all your gear and get on the road to Lake Powell. A child has gone missing in the Bullfrog Marina and she’s possibly in the water ….” I have been a law enforcement officer all my adult life, but when it comes to any kind of incident involving a child, I get twisted up inside even to this day.

I discovered the victim was almost the same age as my own daughter

So, with my dive gear loaded I began the six-hour drive to Bullfrog Marina. Off and on, I thought about what was coming if I was chosen to be one of the recovery divers. The child had not been located yet, but as more time passed the feeling was more prevalent that she was submerged. The family had been vacationing on their houseboat and were in the process of unloading to go home when the horrible realization of an absent little one caused sheer panic. As more information came in by phone and text, I discovered the victim was almost the same age as my own daughter. I don’t care how big and bad and warrior-minded you are, when something hits close to home like this, it initiates an emotional event in your conscious and sub-conscious mind.

Within three hours of arriving, the little body was located via Sector-Scan Sonar 

There she was, only 5 m/16 ft horizontal distance from the houseboat but 35 m/114 ft deep. A sonar target (weighted cube of chicken-wire) was maneuvered to within about three feet of her little body to provide easier access for the recovery divers. The on-site Dive Supervisor, a man of extraordinary skill and expertise, assigned our team to make the recovery. I was assigned, along with another veteran dive team member, to make the dive.

A conservative dive plan was developed, with logistical and emergency contingencies well-covered. Medical personnel were on-site with their equipment bags and a helicopter was getting ready to spin up in case of a quick flight to Las Vegas, the nearest recompression chamber. Everything was set. I looked at my buddy and noticed the same look in his eyes as I was feeling…a mild sense of fear that is overwhelmed by a powerful sense of determination. I have felt that same feeling many times over the years. We then submerged, following the down-line towards the sonar target.

The sociological viewpoint

You might think that at this point I would continue with the story, but I want to pause and briefly address this incident from a sociological viewpoint. A horrible tragedy has occurred. A family is suffering indescribable anguish. Government forces were marshaled to respond to whatever direction the disappearance headed – abduction, drowning or whatever. When the facts pointed to drowning, a small army of experts, technicians, and medical personnel united in a common effort: an efficient and safe deployment. People on-scene were literally offering any service they could, including one kind person who fetched me a drink of water — without me even asking — and felt like they had filled just as valuable a role as anyone else there.

My point here is, what is it about humanity that produces such a dynamic response to a tragedy such as this? I am no credentialed psychologist, but I have witnessed this phenomenon numerous times in my 40+ years of law enforcement. I wonder if there is a subliminal thought that arises in each of us, something like “… but for the Grace of God, there go I.” At least, that is a thought I, myself, have had on occasion. But, whatever actually induces such noble behavior, I’m convinced it originates in the thought of “Bringing someone’s loved one home.

Bringing someone’s loved one home 

My colleague and I made our way through guy wires and black water to the sonar target. We lost all visibility at about 24 m/80 ft and were now in absolute blackness and particulate so thick that even our strong flashlights were of no use. Once we got to the bottom, we were visible on the Sector Scan Sonar computer screen. Numerous people hovered over the shoulder of the computer technician as he watched us maneuver around. My colleague held onto me as I felt around until I made contact. I felt an eerie sense of relief as I pulled the little body against my chest and held tight with my right arm. My colleague sensed that I had been successful and we initiated our ascent.

As visibility returned, long blond hair swished across my mask each time I pulled upward on the line. This one thing troubled me the most: That swishing hair that I could not pull my face away from. At a depth of 9 m/30 ft, we handed our charge over to another set of divers. That was planned ahead of time, in the event we had any decompression obligation. In fact, the complexity of the dive had caused us to need nine minutes of deco at 3 m/10 ft.

Almost as soon as my right arm became unencumbered, I felt pain in my forearm and elbow. I thought, “Oh no, I’m bent!” We continued up to 3 m/10 ft and during the deco stop the pain subsided. I was hopeful that I was okay and then began to suspect I merely had muscle fatigue from holding the little girl tight as we ascended. Nonetheless, upon surfacing I was examined by a medical person and placed on oxygen. As I waited, I happened to notice the family gathered in a circle as if in prayer, each of them with an expression of sadness and relief. I had my own thoughts of “Bringing someone’s loved one home.”

I know my story is shared by many other public safety divers 

That feeling…that knowledge…that experience…of “Bringing someone’s loved one home” is what does it for me. That self-awareness that I have served my fellow beings in a way that they could not do for themselves…it causes me to feel that I am truly more than I perceive myself to be. I have heard that every person has an innate desire to be a part of something big, and for me it has come in the form of public safety diving.

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