On a frigid winter morning, diver Jeremy Cole was the first from his fire department on scene of a vehicle that had plummeted through the ice of a Lynwood pond with two passengers trapped inside.
The diver of 13 years remembers diving under the water and looking up to see the ice freezing above his head, locking him in the darkness where two bodies and a vehicle were sunk somewhere in the depths.
“The water kept freezing over as we were diving, and temperatures were dropping quick,” Cole said. “We kept having to break the ice up to dive. We had to constantly switch out divers because of the harsh conditions and equipment failing easily in the cold.”
The two passengers were deceased by the time they were located in the freezing water.
For Cole, a Dolton Fire Department lieutenant, diving began as a hobby searching ship wrecks and underwater natural wonders. He said he has responded to far more recovery missions, where the person is presumed dead, than rescue missions.
“You have to think of the person's family,” Cole said. “No one wants to do it, but someone has to. It helps to think of them while searching.”
From pulling a heavily decayed body from a pond to recovering guns from watery crime scenes, a diver's duties are diverse and sometimes gruesome. They are tasked with missions year-round, responding to boating accidents and missing swimmers in fair weather and navigating treacherous conditions in winter ice rescues.
Each time they take the dive, they could face the same fate of the drowning victim they are trying to recover if they don't tread carefully.
“When you're diving through ice-cold water through a 3-foot hole in the ice and you have to find your way back to that hole to surface, you need to be well trained or its your life on the line,” Cedar Lake Fire Department Lt. Tony DeAdam said.
On Aug. 2, Cedar Lake saw its first confirmed drowning in many years when a man fell off a boat and never resurfaced, DeAdam said.
Police, first responders and 25 divers scoured the lake for hours until sonar on a search boat located the deceased man long after the sun went down. Searching blindly through the murky water as the sun slipped below the horizon, the divers relied on tech tools to locate the victim.
DeAdam, the marine unit coordinator, said being a diver in Cedar Lake, the largest inland lake in Lake County, presents challenges. At 14 feet at its deepest spot and spanning 781 acres, Cedar Lake also is extremely murky in summer months from boats churning up the lake floor.
“Once you're in it, you can't see your face in front of your hand,” DeAdam said.
Underwater cameras help searchers have an extra pair of eyes under the surface while 360-degree sonar on boats give a side-to-side, top-to-bottom map of their surroundings.
A newer arrival in water search tech is remote-operated vehicles, which can go underwater and are equipped with a camera and sonar. Underwater metal detectors also help find bullets and guns when involved in evidence recovery.
“Now we don't have to put tons of divers out there blindly and put them at risk,” DeAdam said. “It helps with how quickly and how effectively we can make rescues and recoveries.”
'Golden hour and a half'
Once someone slips beneath the water's surface, the “golden hour and a half” begins ticking away, DeAdam said. As soon as divers are called to a scene, each minute that passes could mean the difference between life or death.
“Someone can be submerged for up to 90 minutes and be pulled out and still viable,” he said.
While the person may be unconscious, life-saving measures could bring them back to life. After 90 minutes are up, the rescue mission becomes a recovery mission with one aim: to bring the family closure.
“The hardest part of rescues and recoveries is definitely facing the families,” DeAdam said. “We're out there because they're facing the worst day of their lives.”
On Oct. 29, 2017, a 20-year-old drowned after his canoe capsized in Long Lake in Porter County. It took about three weeks before a dive team found the man's remains in 8 to 9 feet of water using small underwater robots with sonar. The weeds at the bottom of the lake made search efforts nearly impossible.
“We searched for days and had to face the family every day and tell them we couldn't find him,” DeAdam said. “It's trying. It's hard. That's why it's a specialty thing to get into. You don't see a lot of rescue divers on fire departments.”
Cedar Lake's divers are part of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System 207, which is a regional network of fire departments that assist each other with resources and additional manpower. Firefighters from Crown Point, Merrillville and Hobart are also on MABAS 207, which mainly covers all of Lake County but assists wherever needed.
Aptly named for being filled with bodies of water large and small, Lake County presents a tricky terrain for divers.
“The entire county has all of these inland lakes, retention ponds and rivers,” DeAdam said. “It's a unique situation because on top of that we have Lake Michigan, which is a whole different animal.”
While cities like East Chicago, Whiting and Gary have their own dive teams, many communities don't have the resources to have divers within their fire departments, DeAdam said.
MABAS 24, which is composed of 10 divers from five towns, typically covers Chicago's far South Side but also responds to other communities when needed, Lansing Fire Department Chief Chad Kooyenga said.
“They are hardworking, brave and committed to the areas they serve,” Kooyenga said. “Being in an underwater environment with zero visibility is not something people are lining up to do. These team members do it without hesitation.”
Roy Nelson, a diver for MABAS 24, remembers vividly when he was called to the scene of people trapped inside a vehicle submerged upside down in a retention pond.
“The car was buried in mud up to the base of the windows,” Nelson recalled. “We couldn't clear the mud away, and there were two people trapped in the car. It still bothers me to this day. I think, maybe I could've tried harder.”
Nelson, a firefighter for South Holland Fire Department, has been diving for six years. He said due to the cost of diving equipment and training, he has seen the number of divers dwindle as years pass but is hopeful more young divers will carry the torch.
“Day to day we work together a lot to patch our resources together,” Nelson said. “That's what our division is built on. Working together to help others.”