June 18 • 04:12 AM

Volunteer dive team takes on icy task

February 10, 2010
Editor's note: The following is another in a series of columns by Doug Hunter as he rides along with members of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department. The opinions are the writer's and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

Webster's Dictionary defines a volunteer as one who offers service or joins a force of his or her own free will, a good general description but very vague and misleading when one offers oneself in life threatening events.

The Blue Water area recently lost one of these volunteers. Gary Kendall of Point Edward Fire & Rescue died in a diving accident under the ice of the ever dangerous St. Clair River in an exercise on ice rescue training.

Usually the words 'ultimate sacrifice' are reserved to describe soldiers or police officers dying in the line of duty. There are others. They are called volunteers. They do not carry weapons but they sustain something more lethal. They have the will and resolve to rescue others in the face of any impossible situation, a commitment so powerful that no word exists in Webster's Dictionary to describe it.

On January 16 I was invited by Chief Wayne Brusate of the St. Clair County Marine Rescue and Recovery Team to attend a practice dive beneath the ice. This was the second time I had been with the dive team.

Wayne Brusate is a quiet man, all business and adroit in diving. He's skillful, clever and an expert in his field. Wayne is a professional diver and owns his own commercial diving company and for 38 years has volunteered his time and resources to help others. Recently the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners slashed the budget of the Marine Rescue and Recovery Team. This was not a time for hand-wringing. There would be none of this in Wayne Brusate's commitment to the public.

Wayne, with his family and members of the dive team had an open house at his home on the St. Clair River. They raised over $5,000 for the group. This is Wayne Brusate, forever standing tall in his mission top serve and give back to the people of St. Clair County.

The 16th of January was cold and windy. The air temperature was 25 degrees and the sky cloudy when I arrived at 8 a.m. The men and women were in high spirits as they went about setting up the equipment. A Homeland Security grant had allowed for the purchase of some new equipment and like kids at Christmas they were eager to try it out. The new gear had sonar and underwater video to go along with their other equipment.

Tenders make sure all equipment is working properly and monitor the diver’s movements as he goes underneath the ice. photo by Juanita Hunter.

The team is meticulous as they check and re-check every procedure. They have to. Any mistake could cost a life and they know it. They are all interdependent on one another.

In rubber diving suits with tethers attached, the men go onto the ice in the Black River. With a chainsaw they cut two different holes. The triangled pieces are then removed and set aside to be reinserted later.

While the divers were suiting up I focused on the holes in the five inch ice. The water was dark and murky with a slight current. Those holes were so sinister a chill ran up my spine and I could feel the adrenaline building. I remember reading about Harry Houdini making an escape from a locked casket, handcuffed and shackled inside below the ice of the Detroit River, only to have the current carry him away from the hole. He survived by pressing his nose and mouth against the ice to capture pockets of air that had become trapped until he found the hole in the darkness with his hands.

Under the watchful eye of Chief Brusate and as tenders re-checked the equipment, two divers went onto the ice. With the check list completed they slid into the darkness of the murky water. They each reported back as they descended. Depth 9 feet; 14 feet; visibility 12 to 18 inches; water temperature 34 degrees; visibility now zero. The video confirmed the visibility. It was negative. The audio was perfect.

The command was given to make a fifty foot sweep of the hole. The life support line was fed into the black hole by the tenders. The bubbles that always give the location of the divers disappeared from the hole.

They were now entirely dependent on the 150 pounds of equipment strapped to them and the tenders at the hole. Two more divers sat readied to enter if problems arise.

After 30 minutes they were ordered to emerge. The bubbles reappeared and suddenly the divers surfaced. Quickly the tenders assisted them from the dark hold and rushed them into the shelter of a heated tent called the clam. Just as quickly two more divers immersed into the hole and were gone. On this day, 24 volunteers would fulfill the requirement to dive every 30 days regardless of conditions to maintain certification.

This is a strict standard that must be maintained to be able to meet any challenge that may arise.

Inside the clam two men sat warming and drinking warm Jello to restore energy and electrolytes lost in the icy water.

Instantly a smile appears on their pink faces and they invite me in. I know these men. Back in November I accompanied them as they tried to recover the body of a young man who had jumped from the Blue Water Bridge (more on that later.)

Dave, like myself, works for Chrysler Corporation at Jefferson North. Eric is an insurance agent in Port Huron. Like the others they are true volunteers. They could be doing other things on this day but instead they're here to give back to the community and humanity.

In good spirits they listen intently to my barrage of questions on their condition. Both concur the only after effect is that their fingers are cold.

The conversation drifts back to mid-November when we first met. Saturday, November 14 was a pleasant day. We had above average temperatures as I boarded the dive boat to recover the body, the earthly remains of a young nurse who four days earlier had ended his life by jumping off the Blue Water Bridge. Normally the Rescue and Recovery Team searches for two days. But extenuating circumstances had tugged at the hearts of the dive team. Every day the mother and sister of the young man had gathered at the launch site with fresh coffee and sandwiches and begged with tear-filled eyes to continue the search for their loved one. They needed closure. The dive team responded to their wishes and their own calling as volunteers and reacted. Personal responsibilities such as family and employment became secondary. It is unfortunate but most of the duty of the team is recovery and the families are usually present. From pulling a child from a pond or a drowning victim, these men and women of mercy endure our greatest tragedies with an inner strength that can only be described as angelic.

The water under the bridge is best described as boiling water. The currents can pull from various angles up and down, sideways and can move up to five miles per hour in spots. The bottom is littered with sunken ships, full sized trees, rocks and coupled with the current is a recipe for tragedy. Depths range from 48 feet up to sudden dips of 70 feet.

Undaunted the divers repeatedly went into the treacherous waters for sweeps in different patterns, which were determined by the currents below. Intently I listened to the conversations between the divers and the tenders as they spoke of conditions and sites on the floor of the most dangerous spot on the Great Lakes.

As the sun started to set in the west, the search was suspended on this day but the team would try one more time on Sunday to fulfill the sad wishes of the family.

Many claim to be humanitarians and a few are in their hearts. Some will venture into dangerous situations to help, but very few will actually put themselves in a position where their very existence is in peril. The St. Clair County Dive Team is a member of a select few who along with other First Responders are true volunteers. We all should salute them for their sacrifices.

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Doug Hunter is a lifelong Capac resident, a farmer, historian and writer. His great-great grandfather, Noble Hunter, founded the Capac Journal in the late 1800s.
Castle Creek
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