A dark dive
Searching for bodies in dark, freezing and deep water takes careful preparation, skill and nerve, writes
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
The dive squad are described as the unsung heroes of the police force, enduring dangerous and difficult conditions to find evidence, or the missing.
Above and left, Police dive members diving underwater.
Police divers managed to return the bodies of Anveel and Sheetal Ram to grieving family members after a Christchurch tragedy this week.