When most people daydream of deep-water diving, they fantasize about warm, tropical locations with crystal blue waters as well as fascinating ocean life and warm, soothing water surrounding them.
But when Lt. Christopher Roberts of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department and other members of the county’s Water Rescue and Recovery Dive Team did a recent training dive, it was no tropical fantasy. It was more like an Arctic nightmare.
Team members immersed themselves one at a time 25 feet below the surface of a frozen Lynwood, Ill., retention pond. Once they got under the 5-inch ice, members found themselves with only a half-inch yellow rope tethered to a steel metal D-ring as their lifeline.
After divers from the Columbus Police and Bartholomew County Sheriff’s departments dropped mere feet below the triangular ice hole, their lifeline seemed to disappear into the abyss, Roberts said.
At 34 degrees, the water temperature of the pond was only slightly warmer than in the northern Atlantic Ocean when the Titanic sank near Newfoundland a century ago.
However, the air temperature in the suburb south of Chicago during the Jan. 26 dive was 18 degrees, a full 10 degrees colder than ship records show the unsinkable Molly Brown experienced aboard her lifeboat on April 15, 1912.
Training participants were better equipped to handle the icy waters than the survivors of the Titanic. Their gear included 7 millimeter neoprene gloves and face hood, a full-face mask, and a gasket where the top of the suit meets the hood.
But even when equipped with underwater lights, each diver saw nothing but black silt under the ice, Roberts said. They heard nothing but silence. And their training told them the slightest mishap or mistake could become catastrophic.
One such mishap occurred during one of Roberts’ first training dives a few years ago. His regulator froze while 25 feet below thick ice, causing his air tank to suddenly empty. He was rescued by a partner who guided him through an emergency surfacing.
“Not being a diver and not wanting to be a diver, these guys are a select few,” said Sheriff’s Maj. Gary Myers, who coordinates water rescue activities for the team. “It takes somebody special to get under the ice, into the muck and do the job they are doing.”
Before the divers began this type of training in 2011, Bartholomew County law enforcement were forced to rely on divers from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources or the Indiana State Police for local ice-rescue dives.
The problem was that it usually took at least an hour for an out-of-county diver to arrive at the scene. Myers noted an average person who stays in frozen water for an hour will either die of hypothermia or suffer permanent brain damage.
“That was the biggest reason why Sheriff (Mark) Gorbett and the County Council drastically improved the water-rescue team,” Myers said. “We wanted divers available immediately.”
Roberts added that while the team has not been called on to save a life over the past few years, members are put to work frequently in recovering evidence and property.
“Vehicles are a big thing,” Roberts said. “People like to stash stolen vehicles in water, and we have a lot of retention ponds, lakes and rivers.”
Since there’s limited visibility, divers rely on their bodies and hands to make an underwater search. Once they reach the bottom of a lake, they make a specific pattern such as a half-moon shape. After that pattern is completed, the rope is let out another foot, and the same pattern is repeated on a slightly larger sweep.
The same routine continues for 20 minutes until the diver is pulled up and another diver continues the search.
“That way, you know you’ve searched every inch of the ground,” Roberts said. “And if you don’t come up with grass and mud covering you, you aren’t doing your job right.”
Before the eight hours of training in Lynwood, members of the dive team underwent four hours of classroom training at Lake County Divers Supply Inc. in Hobart.
With mostly moderate winters in south central Indiana, there is never a good time for anyone to go out on an ice-covered body of water, Myers said.
“That’s why we went north to do our training,” Myers said. “And we still had to postpone it for two weeks, due to thin ice up in northern Indiana.”