Archive for Saturday, July 16, 1994


July 16, 1994


— They work in mud and total darkness at the bottom of area lakes. For members of the Douglas County Underwater Recovery Team, diving isn't about pearls and exotic fish.

From 20 feet down, in the silt-choked pitch blackness of this small lake in southwest Douglas County, Mike Shanks signals that he's in trouble.

"Byron, he's hung up on a log," says Scott Chamberlain, the dock-stationed "tender" holding the nylon-and-wire lifeline attached to Shanks' diving harness. "We've got a diver emergency."

Byron Miller slips below the surface. In minutes, he and Shanks bubble to the surface.

The divers are members of the Douglas County Underwater Recovery Team, a 9-year-old volunteer group coordinated by the Douglas County Sheriff's Department.

"We've recovered bodies, weapons, cars," said Rich Barr, Lawrence fire marshal and leader of the 11-member team. "We've made public service dives -- to clear the intakes at Clinton, for instance. We've even recovered boat motors."

The team's most recent dive was June 1 at Mary's Lake, to locate a 17-year-old Lawrence boy who had disappeared while trying to swim from a boat to shore. The boy's body was found in 7- to 8-foot-deep water about an hour after authorities were called.

Twice a month, the team gathers to train. Shanks' emergency situation, in fact, is a part of a scenario in which a diver searching for a knife becomes trapped underwater.

The training exercise, held Wednesday, is deeply rooted in a similar but real emergency that occurred in the summer of 1985.

Barr, one of only two members at the time, was diving to recover a submerged car at Clinton Lake when his tend line became tangled in the tow cable he had hooked to the car. There was no one to dive in and free him.

"That was enough to scare me into thinking some things should change," Barr said.

Later that year, Barr persuaded then-Douglas County Sheriff Rex Johnson to take over funding for the team from Douglas County Emergency Preparedness.

"That was a big change for us," said Barr, who has been diving since 1979 and leads the team. "From that point, we added equipment and personnel and increased our training."

Because the team isn't centrally headquartered and can't respond to most scenes quickly, it doesn't bill itself as a rescue operation.

Even some recovery dives are off-limits.

"Our general rules are that we don't dive swift-running water, we don't dive at night and we don't dive ice," Barr said.

But that may change as the team upgrades its equipment. For instance, the team recently received masks with built-in microphones and earpieces, allowing divers to talk to each other and with tenders on shore. Before, divers communicated through a series of coded tugs on tend lines.

The team is made up of police officers, sheriff's officers, paramedics, firefighters and a former firefighter. Each is certified in recreational diving.

Scott Dieker, a paramedic who joined the team four years ago, began diving in college when he signed up for a diving course because it "fulfilled a bizarre recreation requirement."

Rose Rozmiarek joined the team shortly after she left the Paola Police Department for a job at the Kansas University Police Department. She's been a recovery diver for 10 years, having worked on the Miami County team.

In their work, they face an entirely different world than in sport diving.

"Ninety percent of the time, whenever we get more than 10 feet underwater, it's pitch black," Barr said.

Following Shanks' tend line, Miller reaches the "stricken" diver and hauls him to the surface. The exercise is a success.

"You got there quick," Shanks tells Miller. "When I went down for diver emergency, you were there within 30 seconds."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.