Divers Recovering Evidence in Confined Spaces


An Emergency Response Diver has documented the location of a simulated child victim in the artificial aircraft and now prepares to make the recovery. Notice the simulated “debris.”

“Confined Spaces” is the term assigned by the U.S. federal government and also commercial/military diving entities for what would commonly be known in the Technical Diving community as the “Overhead Environment.”

A common definition of Confined Space is any site or environment in which there is primarily only one entry/exit point and two divers may not pass through side-by-side.  Some entities also consider mission-oriented Ice Diving as Confined Space Diving.

While the technical diving community experiences Confined Space Diving mainly in Advanced Wreck or Cave  Diving – and only for exploration – Emergency Response Divers may be called upon to recover bodies or collect evidence in this unique overhead environment.  Of course, no Emergency Response Diver should attempt a Confined Space Dive without first having been trained and certified in this unique task.  That is the topic of another article and I will also not delve into the variety of training courses associated with Confined Space Diving.

The most well-known incident in our time involving Confined Space evidence recoveries is the cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Italian coast.  Numerous Emergency Response Divers from multiple jurisdictions penetrated the ship in search of possible trapped survivors and to recover drowning victims.  Confined Space diving, for the most part, is not conducted on such a grandiose scale as the Costa Concordia.  Most often, Emergency Response Divers are called upon to penetrate submerged aircraft, school buses, other types of vehicles, or various types of underwater structures.  These penetrations may be attempted rescues, body recoveries, or evidence collection that is crucial enough to risk such a unique and complex dive.  This now reveals another difference between Technical Divers (penetrating wrecks or caves) and the Emergency Response Diver on a Confined Space Dive.  The Wreck or Cave Diver should not be mission-oriented, but an Emergency Response Diver is almost always mission-oriented.

Now let’s address the issue of actually making penetration dives to recover evidence.  First, it would be an extraordinary circumstance that would justify the risk of a Confined Space Dive to collect evidence.  The value of the evidence would need to be so critical, that the risky elements of the dive would be have to overwhelmed by the  need to collect it in its pristine state.  For example, if a small airplane or an automobile becomes submerged, it would normally just be lifted to the surface by some means and then investigated topside.  Yet, the Emergency Response Diver is an appendage of the criminal investigator, who may feel a compelling need to collect evidence from the confined space site while it is in its pristine condition.  There might be suspected foul play in the case of a homicide or it could be a suspected terrorist incident.  Then the Emergency Response Diver may be given the charge to make a penetration dive.  When a Confined Space dive to collect evidence is decided upon, the Diver should have a clear idea of what particular target he or she is assigned to document or retrieve.

The bottom line is … the rules of recovering evidence are the same, no matter what the environment.  So, a photograph documenting the position of a key in an ignition, or the angle of a throttle in a boat cabin, or a body’s position in a riverbank undercut, nonetheless still need to be clear and sharp.  Likewise, a video of an object or person in a truck cab needs to be carefully shot, so the viewer can clearly perceive what he or she is seeing.  Similarly, documenting a body’s original condition in the confined space is much more beneficial to investigators and litigants than trying to imagine the scene according to testimony of the Diver.  Such evidence is used to investigate the incident and then later for courtroom purposes.

It is in the courtroom setting, however, that the integrity of the collected evidence will receive its greatest scrutiny.  The skill involved with the evidence collection can make the difference between evidence allowed as an “Exhibit” or being excluded from the case entirely.

Now for the skills and procedures; let’s begin at the surface.  There will still be a Tender at the surface, if circumstances permit.  That person will still perform the function as normally done.  Additionally, there will be an underwater Tender positioned just outside the point where the penetration is made.

That Tender will monitor the Diver and control the line such that the Diver can enter the confined space with the least possibility of getting entangled in his/her own safety line.  Both the entry point Tender and the Diver should be aware of the target being sought, whether it is to be photo/video documented or a physical recovery is to be made.  Finally, the Diver must exhibit superior buoyancy and maneuvering skills.  The Frog Kick, Reverse Kick, and Helicopter Turns are optimal propulsion techniques in confined spaces, or perhaps Pull & Glide* may be possible.  A major factor will be if the Diver has photo or video equipment in his/her hands, which diminishes the possibility for Pull & Glide or holding position by grasping an object.  Regardless, a horizontal trim will almost always be desirable.  Regardless of propulsion and trim, the primary objective will be to maneuver safely without disturbing silt or debris and maintain as much visibility as possible for movement and also photo/video purposes.

Physical evidence may be collected in the typical fashion: small items in plastic boxes or baggies, larger items in plastic boxes or similar containers, and even bigger objects may need to be placed in large PVC tubes with end-caps.  Collecting evidence is collecting evidence, whether in a confined space or not.

The next challenge for the Confined Space Diver is to exit safely. He or she may have the photo/video equipment to deal with, or even an object(s) of collected evidence.  Again, superior buoyancy and propulsion skills are highly desired.  The entry point Tender will retrieve the tended line carefully to diminish the possibility of the Diver becoming entangled in the line.  Here’s an important point:  the Diver who collects an object of evidence should keep it in his/her possession all the way to the surface – unless it creates an unsafe situation for the Diver.  This aids with the “chain of custody” issues that will surely arise in any subsequent litigation.  When the Diver surfaces, he or she may then turn it over to the appropriate Evidence Technician for processing.

Lastly, any personnel who anticipate engaging in this unique aspect of Emergency Response Diving must – absolutely must – seek competent and qualified training before deploying.  The overhead environment is unforgiving.  One of my past instructors advised me: “… never forget, every time you penetrate an overhead environment, it will try to kill you ….”

As you seek competent and qualified training for this function, you will discover it is not widespread.  As might be expected, ERDI has competent and reliable training available for Emergency Response Divers who might anticipate facing the confined space challenge.  This is a situation, however, that is not conducive to waiting until the need exists, and then goes and get the training.  If a reasonable possibility exists in your future that you may be tasked with a Confined Space Dive, be proactive and seek Confined Space Diver training in advance … you never know when the phone call may come of a school bus in the river or a submerged plane with VIP’s or a submerged vehicle with confidential documents inside.  Colleagues, best wishes to you all and be careful out there.

* Pull & Glide is a Cave Diving propulsion technique in which the Diver uses hand-holds at opportune points to pull him/herself along and glide to the next possible hand-hold.

Wendell Nope is an Emergency Response Diver Instructor in Utah.  He is also a TDI Advanced Trimix Diver and Full Cave Diver.  He has been involved with over 40 drowning victim recoveries.  He is also a member of the TDI/SDI/ERDI Training Advisory Pannel.  His favorite pastime is exploring underwater caves in Utah.  He may be contacted at wnope@utah.gov.

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