The Tough Search
Dive team faces many obstacles when recovering bodies
In distress, a call is made. Engines roar with an American flag flapping as fire crews rush to the scene.
But it's no cat-in-a-tree scenario or residential blaze.
Skirting waves, the bright red jet boat of the Lake Oswego Search and Rescue team churns bubbles as team members scan the area, judging the scale of the drowning scene.
Strapping on as much as 75 pounds of equipment each, two divers plunk into the water, carrying cell-phone-size cameras to inspect the riverbed.
Beneath, it is relatively silent, gangly vines sway like an eerie underwater jungle growing from a seemingly black abyss.
Within feet of the surface, divers are enveloped in darkness.
Forms of gigantic sturgeon drift by, blurred in what divers call black water, a murky green film that makes the Willamette River notoriously difficult to see through.
Divers pause to marvel at the prehistoric creatures as they fade from view, then, flicking their flippers, they descend into the lightless deep.
Under similar conditions, Lake Oswego Search and Rescue divers, specifically firefighters Chris Neely and Wayne Purshell, have found five of the two dozen Oregonians who've lost their lives in Oregon's lakes and rivers this summer.
Divers routinely shatter windshields of submerged vehicles or chop downed trees under as much as 60 feet of water to rescue or recover drowning victims.
Troy Bany, director of the Lake Oswego dive team and a member for 18 years, said it has been an unusual summer for his team.
'I can't remember the last time we had so many people die,' Bany said. 'It's ridiculous.'
Bany said many factors come into account as to why there has been such a high deathtoll this summer. One possibility he's seen is a correlation between drowning and drinking.
'Most of them are alcohol related,' he said. 'They drink and get dehydrated, then jump in the water and drown.'
Called the mammalian dive reflex according to Bany, the human body naturally reacts to dramatic differences in temperature. And from hours in dry, blistering summer heat a body suddenly going into mountain run-off in a river can throw it into shock, increasing in a frenzied moment the likelihood of water being inhaled.
'They hit the water and go 'hyukopp,' suck in the water and drown,' Bany said.
And once water fills the lungs, the body sinks like a rock.
Neely, a diver for five and a half years on the team, said he thinks many of the water-related deaths have come from poor swimming decisions.
'What happens to a lot of people is they swim half-way across Molalla or Clackamas, it's too swift and they start to panic,' Neely said. 'About 50 to 75 percent of people start panicking and expel a lot of energy from thrashing - all it takes is one gulp of water and down they go.'
Once victims are reported missing, divers rush to the scene and calculate a square radius around where the person was last seen. Based on the speed of the water's current and scale of the rescue, the team determines whether more teams in nearby regions may be needed.
The dive team leader quickly assesses the safety of the water and divers decide individually whether precautionary measures outweigh personal danger.
'One gentleman had drowned on Clackamas (River) and we had an underwater camera,' Neely said. 'We put it on a pole and stuck it down there and the current ripped the pole and camera out of our hands - that's when you don't dive.'
When the divers decide it's safe, they plunge in, methodically scanning the river floor, gripping a rope controlled by a line-tender aboard a rescue boat some 20 to 60 feet above.
Sifting through algae and scurrying fish, divers may work with as many as eight other divers from the Clackamas County Interagency Water Rescue Consortium in a rescue. The consortium consists of Tualatin Valley Fire Rescue, Clackamas Fire District 1, Canby, Molalla, Lake Oswego, Estacada, Gladstone, Sandy and American Medical Response.
The nine-part water rescue consortium was created in 1988, according to Neely, to organize the regional rescue teams around the Clackamas area more efficiently.
'There is one diver per five-man team,' Bany said.
But divers can be traded between teams depending on the incident's magnitude and suitable manpower needed at the fire station in case members are called.
'We might take a guy from Clackamas to come with us for a recovery,' Bany said. 'We regularly train with Clackamas or Canby to find out what each other is thinking - in case something happens, so we aren't strangers.'
If divers find something, ropes are tugged twice to signal line-tenders above. After 10 minutes, they resurface, tapping their head to confirm personal safety.
Due to the randomness of where or when a person might drown, divers must consistently know underwater river and lake conditions. On-location training in bodies of water becomes a crucial tool to saving or recovering a victim within the first hour, known as the 'golden hour.'
'Our team went up (to train) near the wagon wheel on the Molalla,' Neely said in regards to an incident this summer.
'And two days later they had someone drown there … it was a night call - we got there right at dusk and because the dive team had trained during the summer day, we knew the whole bottom of the river down there,' Neely said. 'We could have done it with our eyes closed.'
Divers of the consortium have all passed a mandatory open-water diving class, required for any licensed divers, as well as a rigorous eight-hour, three-day consecutive class that tests resourcefulness and psychological propensity.
'When they flood your mask, your mind tells you you're drowning - you have to convince yourself that you can breathe,' Bany said. 'It's very psychological.'
To maintain their licenses, divers must have 12 dives a year, each lasting at least 20 minutes underwater.
As a finale to the three-day training, a gruesome slideshow prepares new divers for what they may experience underwater - and the resulting psychological shock after what they are likely to find.
'First it shows a guy at the bottom of a lake, then its gets progressively worse,' Bany said. 'Bodies decomposed, stuck under for days - it gets your mind into realizing it's not all in training.'
'If you are a new diver, there is no way to prepare for the body without experiencing it - no way to recreate it,' Neely said.
'Not many people can look for a dead person in 35 to 40 feet of water,' Bany said. 'It's bizarre.'
Stories from Bany have kept divers from despair in a profession where rescues are few.
'One time, an older gal drove her car off Oak Grove boat ramp, (and when we started searching for her), we had no idea it was a dumping ground for stolen vehicles,' Bany said.
'We had to pull license plates off of cars and show them to the sheriff, (to ask) 'is this it?''
'It took a long time to find the lady and her car because in 25-30 feet of black water, you can't see your hand in front of you,' Bany said.
But even Bany has gotten the willies when whacked by a large primitive fish under pitch-black water.
'You know what scares the hell out of you, is when a sturgeon whips you.'
Yet virtually nothing can prepare divers for the powerful emotions that result when a body recovery has gone overnight while families await closure.
'It's hard seeing the families -that's the worst, because you are out there doing a job,' Neely said. He described the scene after a 12-year-old girl drowned in Roslyn Lake this summer.
'There were 60 to 75 of her family members just sitting there watching us,' he said. 'You want to get her for them.'
In this scenario, Neely and his team had to cover the young girl's body while in the water, using boats to block onlookers' view for the sake of relatives.
'When we know it's a recovery, and (the family) knows (their loved ones) are still out there, we want to find them to start the grieving process,' he said.
With two dozen Oregonians having lost their lives and stories of drownings becoming big news this summer, team members have seen little reaction from residents.
'The sad thing is all these drownings are unnecessary because people aren't taking necessary precautions,' Neely said.
Neely considers the emergent river culture along the Sandy River - to where urban and rural residents alike flock - to be 'unbelievable.'
'There are hundreds of people and you don't see a life jacket on one of them,' Neely said.
And though certainly a number of residents may forget Oregon's waterways are not their personal pools, Oregonians haven't wavered in respect for their firemen.
'I think since 9/11 you get a lot more thank you's … they appreciate firefighters a lot more,' Neely said.
'But I don't think they know what we do, 'cause it's not just fighting fires.'