Dive Time

Washington PA Observer Reporter
1 July 2012

7/1/2012 3:31 AM

FREDERICKTOWN They dove into cold, murky rivers, lakes and streams across the tri-state area with the hope of finding a drowning victim.

And 55 years after those first training sessions at Nemacolin Country Club’s swimming pool, the team of volunteers continues to help bring closure to family members and friends. Instead of rudimentary scuba tanks of years ago, the team has state-of-the-art equipment along with a certified cadaver dog to help find victims in the water.

“Unfortunately, more often than not it is a recovery mission and not a rescue,” said Mark Husak, president of East Bethlehem Township Volunteer Fire Company, which operates the dive team. “A person who goes under water only has about four minutes until there is brain damage. By the time we get the 911 call and get there, unfortunately it is usually too late.”

The team was formed in 1957 after a community group embarked on a campaign to buy scuba gear for the department on the banks of the Monongahela River and Ten Mile Creek.

“Being on the banks of the Monongahela, the fire department knew that a team was needed,” said John Hart, longtime chief of the department based in Fredericktown.

The team has a 24-foot Carolina skiff powered by a 150-hp commercial outboard motor. Added to the skiff this year was side scan sonar.

“The sonar helps us locate the body before we even put a diver into the water,” Husak said.

The boat is also equipped with radar, a generator, fire pump and retrieval system. It also has emergency lighting and a fire and marine radio. Husak said the boat is unsinkable and would still float if cut in half. The radar unit enables the team to be out at night or in foggy conditions.

The team is able to keep the boat in dry dock thanks to the generosity of Albert Giles, owner of the Fredericktown Butcher Shop, who provides the dock at no charge.

“Having it in dry dock keeps it out of water and prevents algae from building along the bottom and slowing the boat down,” Husak added.

When a call comes in for the team, two of the members get the boat while four head to the fire station to retrieve the trailer containing the team’s equipment.

When the team arrives, the members try to determine the last place the person was spotted in the water.

“The diver’s job is to dive,” said Nick Babko III, a member of the team and second lieutenant in the fire department. “There are always two divers for safety reasons.”

The command of the team comes from someone in the boat. That person ascertains what is going on in the water and what the divers need. Most of the communication is done by hand signals. The amount of time spent by a diver in the water is dependent on the weather and water conditions.

Emma, the 5-year-old Labrador retriever handled by Jason Webeck, is trained to detect the gases given off by a body.

“She is trained to hit on those,” Husak said. “She pretty much guides the boat. She’ll walk on the boat and stand on the side where she is getting a hit.”

Webeck said the “fancy name” for Emma is a Human Remains Detector.

“She uses her natural ability to detect senses and determine paths,” he said. “She can locate people more efficiently.”

Like her human partners, Emma wears a life vest on the boat. The vest has a handle on the top that either a diver or survivor can grab to have Emma pull them in the water to safety.

Last year, dry suits were purchased and the team trained on how to use them. The suits, which have air pumped into them, allow the divers to enter even frigid waters without getting wet.

“As long as the suits are put on properly, you won’t get wet other than perspiration, “ Hart said. “It requires training for the proper use. It is not like putting on a wet suit.”

Husak said that having a dive team is not an inexpensive proposition.

“The sonar unit cost $4,000 and the dry suits were $1,800,” he said. “But someone has to have one.”

“The area between the locks at Maxwell and Gray’s Landing is one of the biggest pools on the Mon for pleasure boating,” Husak said. “There is about 18 miles of water between the two locks.”

Searches by the team over the years has not been limited to finding drowning victims. The team has assisted police in looking for evidence, such as guns believed to have been used to commit a crime. The members have also searched for vehicles that have gone into the water, either deliberately or by accident.

The team has been involved not only in searches on the Mon, but as far away as Moundsville, W.Va. In March the team was part of an effort to recover the body of a man who drowned in Canonsburg Lake.

In addition to Hart, Babko and Webeck, members of the team include Jim Strakey, Nick Babko Jr., Mark Giovanelli, Sam McRoberts, Mike Hughes and Dennis Doruguzzi. Husak and Matt Babko are operators of the dive team’s boat.

To learn more about the fire department and team, check out the Web site at http://www.eastbethfirerescue.com.