A dark dive

Search­ing for bod­ies in dark, freez­ing and deep wa­ter takes care­ful prepa­ra­tion, skill and nerve, writes

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS - Damian Ge­orge.

Their job is un­pre­dictable, dan­ger­ous and in the ma­jor­ity of cir­cum­stances, ex­haust­ing and trau­matic.

The po­lice’s ‘‘un­sung he­roes’’ – the na­tional dive squad – are ex­pected to leave Welling­ton at a mo­ment’s no­tice pre­pared for the grim task at hand.

On Wed­nes­day morn­ing they were de­ployed to a sub­ur­ban lake in Christchurch.

Hours later they re­cov­ered the bod­ies of Avneel and Shee­tal Ram, whose dev­as­tated fam­i­lies watched on from the shore.

Do­ing their job suc­cess­fully usu­ally comes with a bit­ter taste for Se­nior Sergeant Bruce Adams, the of­fi­cer in charge of the squad.

‘‘It’s not re­ally a nice thing we do,’’ says Adams. .

‘‘For us, it’s an un­for­tu­nate rou­tine job where, ob­vi­ously, we’ve been called in tragic cir­cum­stances – dou­bly so in this case.’’

The tragedy struck when a driv­ing les­son went hor­ri­bly wrong, with Shee­tal putting her foot on the ac­cel­er­a­tor and driv­ing into the lake at Hal­swell’s West­lake Re­serve on Tues­day evening.

Avneel dived in to try and reach her as their car sank into the deep wa­ter. He never resur­faced.

The con­di­tions for div­ing were far from ideal for the dive team, with poor vis­i­bil­ity, dense weed and an­i­mal fae­ces.

But the team suc­ceeded, first find­ing Shee­tal in­side the ve­hi­cle, then Avneel about 10 me­tres away.

‘‘We felt some pres­sure be­cause you’ve got all the fam­ily and the com­mu­nity there,’’ Adams says.

‘‘We met with the fam­ily be­fore­hand just to let them know what we’d be do­ing.

‘‘They were cer­tainly ap­pre­cia­tive we were able to re­turn them, so they can start deal­ing with the grief that they’ve got.’’

The Wairoa River was so black, Seda Clay­tonGreene thought he might as well close his eyes. The na­tional po­lice dive squad con­sta­ble was nav­i­gat­ing the murky wa­ters in a des­per­ate search to find a man thought to have gone miss­ing in the North Is­land river af­ter he fled from a po­lice check­point.

The team of searchers waded their way through the pitch-black wa­ter, feel­ing around for any­thing re­sem­bling a hu­man body.

But af­ter a day’s hard work, be­fore the weather turned and the search was called off, the team re­signed them­selves to the re­al­ity – their search had failed.

‘‘We closed our eyes for the sake of it, be­cause there’s no other way of do­ing it, and it was just by feel,’’ Clay­ton-Greene says.

‘‘We chopped out quite a large area, with no luck.

‘‘And the weather started to kick in. So that was that day done – a storm came in, we had to stop, and we never found him.’’

It is those days which are the hard­est for Clay­ton-Greene and the dive team – the ones when the bod­ies never turn up and fam­i­lies and friends are told their loved ones are nowhere to be found.

Blood and gore, as he calls it, are part of the ter­ri­tory, but un­suc­cess­ful searches are the ones that linger in their minds.

Which is why the cir­cum­stances be­hind this par­tic­u­lar mis­sion were es­pe­cially tough to stom­ach.

‘‘A few days later, he turns up. He’s in Napier, alive.’’

The team were called in af­ter po­lice found a parked car and foot­prints lead­ing to the river fol­low­ing the early-morn­ing get­away a few days prior, with a ground search yield­ing no re­sults.

‘‘He’d es­sen­tially gone down the river and jumped out a long way down, wet and cold, and done a run­ner.

‘‘We had ev­ery­thing ready to go just for that search, and we did, I think, a good job of it. We found ev­ery­thing but what we were look­ing for.

‘‘And then for it to be called off be­cause of weather and then three or four days later to hear that he’d turned up in Napier is tough.

‘‘And it’s just a quick phone call [to say], ‘I’m alive, I’m not telling you where I am’. ‘Cool, that’s fine mate, we won’t go search­ing the river for you, we won’t spend all this re­source’.’’

Search­ing for corpses at up to 30 me­tres be­low the wa­ter sur­face is not for ev­ery­one, and there are dan­gers that come with it.

But the team’s safety mea­sures are ex­ten­sive, both un­der­wa­ter and on land.

‘‘If some­thing un­to­ward hap­pens, then the worst that can hap­pen to our staff is they suf­fo­cate, as op­posed to drown­ing, which is a lot eas­ier to come back from,’’ Adams says.

‘‘But ob­vi­ously, we do ev­ery­thing we can to avoid that.’’

The dive team, based in Seav­iew, Welling­ton, will plan to the finest de­tail be­fore em­bark­ing on a mis­sion.

There are chal­lenges in­volved when fly­ing to a job, such as how much equip­ment to take and what to pack, whereas driv­ing can al­low for more flex­i­bil­ity.

Re­gard­less, the team try to get the load just right.

Among their 350 kilo­grams of gear in­cludes 5ml wet­suits, full­face masks, metal de­tec­tors, un­der­wa­ter cam­eras and speak­ers, wire­less and hard-wire com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems, satel­lite phones, and ‘‘pingers’’ at­tached to divers for track­ing. They can search up to 30 me­tres deep, carry 30kg of gear each, and dive in wa­ters up to two de­grees be­low freez­ing. ‘‘We can es­sen­tially dive in sew­er­age, and we have spe­cial suits for that.’’ Searches can also be car­ried out up to 160 me­tres be­low the sur­face us­ing sonar track­ing or an un­der­wa­ter drone. Prospec­tive dive squad mem­bers will spend up to a year un­der­go­ing phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tests to make sure they are up to the task, and a wel­fare of­fi­cer is on hand af­ter each job. The team cur­rently have 11 divers based in Welling­ton, in­clud­ing Adams and Clay­tonGreene, the only full­time staff, as well as re­serve mem­bers in Mu­ru­para (in the Urew­eras), Pukekohe, Timaru and the Chatham Is­lands. Although con­di­tions can be dan­ger­ous, divers never en­dan­ger them­selves. ‘‘The more the risk ramps up, the more we po­ten­tially slow down. There’s cer­tainly a few cups of cof­fee that get had, and have a think about things, and we’re for­tu­nate that we’re sup­ported with the gear that we’ve got and the staff we’re us­ing.

‘‘Just be­cause you do a course doesn’t mean that you’re su­per men.’’

The job might seem grim to some, but Clay­ton-Greene is quick to down­play sug­ges­tions the team is do­ing any­thing spe­cial.

‘‘It’s no dif­fer­ent in a lot of re­spects to front­line po­lice work. And the chal­lenge I think, and most cops will be the same, is for what­ever rea­son you can’t find them. Those are the ones you re­mem­ber, and those are the chal­lenges you face.

‘‘You start to ques­tion a lot of things and, mate, we’re there to find them. We want to find them – that’s the whole point. And when you don’t, that’s the one that hurts you.’’

The team at­tends an aver­age of 60 to 70 in­ci­dents a year, with 20 to 30 of those in­volv­ing body re­cov­ery.

The rest of the time, divers are search­ing for ev­i­dence such as firearms, knives and drugs, while the main role of the full­time staff is in­ves­ti­gat­ing div­ing fa­tal­i­ties.

The team has been called to Ton­gariro, Twizel, Cam­bridge, Mor­rinsville, and Christchurch in the past few weeks alone.

Re­cov­er­ing bod­ies plays an im­por­tant part in help­ing griev­ing fam­i­lies, Adams says.

‘‘Some­one’s had a re­ally bad day and, ob­vi­ously, we’re there to sup­port those who are left be­hind and try and get them an­swers about what’s hap­pened and why . . . there’s def­i­nitely noth­ing worse than not find­ing some­one, as a friend and fam­ily mem­ber.’’

The team work me­thod­i­cally to clear ar­eas dur­ing a search but ul­ti­mately rely on wit­nesses to point them in the right di­rec­tion.

‘‘Quite of­ten we ex­pect that wit­ness to come down, with a bit of coax­ing, to try and give us the best start point be­cause, oth­er­wise, it means more div­ing, more time in the wa­ter, more ex­po­sure.’’

Fac­tors such as swell, wa­ter clar­ity and pol­lu­tion can make div­ing dif­fi­cult, as well as change­able vis­i­bil­ity, Clay­tonGreene says.

‘‘You could have oceans where it could go from amaz­ing vis­i­bil­ity where you just love search­ing, and it’s just crys­tal clear, to very, very lim­ited vis­i­bil­ity, and that’s be­cause of depth.

‘‘Search­ing through weed and muck, I close my eyes, be­cause there’s no other way of do­ing it. It makes all your other senses more at­tuned, and you’re just pat­ting.

‘‘You’ve got your mates be­side you on your shoul­ders, and you just go through and search.’’

Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Mike Bush praises the dive team as the ‘‘un­sung he­roes’’ of the force.

‘‘Their work is very chal­leng­ing of­ten in pitch-black, freez­ing or mud­died en­vi­ron­ments. Op­er­a­tions can last from sev­eral hours to sev­eral days, with the aim of re­turn­ing lost loved ones to a griev­ing fam­ily and whanau.’’

It was com­mon for bod­ies to be dis­cov­ered through feel­ing in the dark, Clay­ton-Greene says. ‘‘It’s amaz­ing how many bits of sticks and stones will feel like what you’re look­ing for. Or big logs or eels – the eels that move re­ally quickly af­ter you touch them.’’

On some oc­ca­sions, a fel­low searcher can be mis­taken for the miss­ing body, Adams ex­plains.

‘‘Be­cause you’re shoul­der to shoul­der, just de­pend­ing on what con­di­tions are like and how far apart you’re spaced, you’ll grab your mate next to you, but he doesn’t move.

‘‘You think, ‘We’ve got him!’, then you start giv­ing it a twist and all of a sud­den you get a punch in the side.’’

Adams was part of the team who searched for miss­ing tod­dler Am­ber-Lee Cruick­shank, the 2-year-old who van­ished near Queen­stown in 1992 and hasn’t been seen since.

‘‘That was in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing for ev­ery­one be­cause [we had] great con­di­tions to be search­ing in . . . no flow, no cur­rents, you can see for tens of me­tres, and just not find­ing a re­sult.

‘‘But cer­tainly the mo­ti­va­tor for me, and it’s what I joined the job for 30 years ago, is to help peo­ple in bad times.

‘‘It is ad­di­tional work. It is a bit of time away from home for our team. So we’re lucky that we’ve got sup­port from home as well.’’

It’s not re­ally a nice thing we do. For us, it’s an un­for­tu­nate rou­tine job where, ob­vi­ously, we’ve been called in tragic cir­cum­stances – dou­bly so in this case. Se­nior Sergeant Bruce Adams on the Avneel and Shee­tal Ram drown­ings

JOHN­SON / STUFF JOSEPH

The dive squad are de­scribed as the un­sung he­roes of the po­lice force, en­dur­ing dan­ger­ous and dif­fi­cult con­di­tions to find ev­i­dence, or the miss­ing.

NZ PO­LICE/SUP­PLIED

Above and left, Po­lice dive mem­bers div­ing un­der­wa­ter.

JOHN KIRK-AN­DER­SON / STUFF

Po­lice divers man­aged to re­turn the bod­ies of An­veel and Shee­tal Ram to griev­ing fam­ily mem­bers af­ter a Christchurch tragedy this week.

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