Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Difficult duty: Recovering those who have been lost at sea

Closure can be hard to come by when a loved one dies at sea. Sometimes a boat is found the next day. Other times, the weather conditions make an immediate search impossible. Families sometimes must hold funeral services that can feel incomplete, and seafront communities create memorials to bring a sense of finality.

In Maine, there are some 23 trained divers among the state's police, marine patrol and warden service who work hard in sometimes dangerous conditions to help families achieve closure when tragedy strikes at sea. Though the divers go about their task with the professionalism needed, they know they are making a difference for families and friends of those who die on the water, said Mike Joy, dive team leader for the warden service.

"Every diver knows how important their job is," Joy said in an email interview.

If a body is lost in saltwater, the recovery effort is usually led by the Maine State Police, who maintain a team of ten divers. All are full-time police officers who mostly operate on land but have special diving and aquatic police work training, said Trooper Matthew Grant, the force's dive team leader.

The team is augmented by three divers from the Maine Marine Patrol, which also provides logistical support. If the body recovery effort is needed in inland waters, the ten-diver team of the Maine Game Warden Service takes the lead, but each team stands ready to help the other when needed.

In some ways, the work the divers do is similar to the work they are trained to do on land. On land or by sea, it can involve dealing daily with death and grieving families. Standard police training helps divers examine a scene they may find underwater to evaluate the situation for safety and look for evidence, said Grant.

"When you’re looking for evidence or making a recovery, you have to sort of shift into low gear and kind of do the best you can, given the conditions. You take a moment and sort of analyze things," he said.

But in other ways, diving work is much more dynamic and dangerous than much of the work the wardens or police do on land, Joy and Grant agree. The environment of a scene of a water accident may change completely every five minutes. And conditions often are treacherous, said Joy. Sometimes recovery efforts may need to be delayed for weeks or months to make sure divers are safe, even though such a delay may grieve a family awaiting word.

"We often dive in locations where people would not dive," Joy said. "Every dive we conduct is in a black-water condition, zero visibility."

Both the warden service and the police force also have support systems in place to help divers process their experiences after recovery efforts are complete. Whether an incident happens on land or in water, there are procedures in place to evaluate the emotional well-being of wardens and police and to give them the space to talk about their feelings.

The divers also learn to lean on each other for emotional support, Joy said. It's emotionally difficult work, but wardens and police, by necessity, train themselves to maintain an emotional distance in their work, said Grant.

"I wouldn't necessarily say you become hardened," said Grant. "But you do become accustomed to it."

Body recovery work does make the divers evangelical about boating safety, however. Too often, Grant said, he recovers bodies of fishermen who do not have on the gear that gives them the best chance for survival. The newest generation of survival suits is designed to be more lightweight and easier to wear, but too often fishermen can underestimate the danger of their conditions, or overestimate their swimming ability, Grant said. They keep the suits nearby and think they will have time to don the suits should trouble arise. In his work, Grant says he knows otherwise.

"An inch too far away is still too far away," he said.

Tuesday 24 September 2013



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