Diving with the Dead: It Ain’t The Caribbean

Suppose that a car full of unwise drunks careens into the Potomac River in the environs of Washington. A car floats for about two minutes, usually, allowing the sober to get out, provided of course that they can swim. Suppose these drunks don’t get out. Maybe they like the car. Down they go.

Hereabouts, a car usually sinks into perhaps twenty-five feet of water, whereupon Tommy Robinson and members of the 12-man scuba team of the Washington police, headquartered at 550 Water Street, show up.

In case you want to join the team as Member Thirteen, think. The Potomac has no visibility at all: Go a foot underwater and you might as well be blind. Nothing. No light. Not much sense of direction. In diving, one direction is more important than others. Up. In the Potomac, ‘up’ isn’t always obvious. Seriously. You can think you are going up and find yourself hitting the bottom over and over. In clear water, you can follow your bubbles, which know where ‘up’ is. In the Potomac, you can’t see your bubbles.

So, in pitch blackness, in water that in some regions — the Anacostia River after a storm — is indistinguishable from a sewer, Robinson’s guys (he’s the trainer) sink to the muck, and it is truly muck, nice nasty stuff like chocolate pudding, to begin feeling for the car. You might as well dive in the men’s room of a bus station. The team has to take all kinds of shots so as not to catch diseases I’d rather not think about.

The car will probably be upside down, that being how cars end up if the water is more than twenty feet deep. So there you are, having An Adventure. Mostly you hear scuba noises’s-s-s-ssssss-wubbawubbawubba. You can talk to the surface through the communication line that follows the line attached to your chest harness. That helps some.

Crawling across the gunch, you bump into the car. It is full of dead people. Your job is to recover the bodies without getting tangled up in something and becoming a body yourself. Becoming a body is easy when you are groping in pitch blackness under and inside a car full of dead people. Your tank can snag. Wires and ropes and things, which tend to breed on river bottoms, can wrap around your tank, or legs, or neck. A car can shift and pin you.

And you can’t see. Anything.

To help things, there’s stress. The guys I met at the dive team’s house on Water Street are not easily frightened. They — Robinson, Dane Snapko, Joe Welsh — are the kind of unapologetically masculine folk I’ve met in military units that do things that sensible people wouldn’t. They are fit, confident, experienced, all those things. But no light, tangled in some hostile fibrous thing, maybe having a little equipment trouble. Muck everywhere. Bodies poking out the windows. And you can’t figure out how to get loose from whatever has your tank.

Drowning doesn’t kill divers. Panic does. You can recover from almost anything underwater if you don’t panic. But stress urges you in the direction of

* panic, makes it easier to lose it when something else goes wrong that you weren’t expecting. I haven’t dived the Potomac on a wreck, or at all, but I promise you it takes strength of character just to stay calm. Even these guys feel the strain.

Then you get to pull the dead guys out of the car. Oh yeah, in winter they do it under the ice. Not good if your regulator freezes.

In the military, these guys would get hazardous duty pay, and probably need three drinks just to unclench their teeth after diving a nasty wreck. One involving dead kids, for example. Washington doesn’t believe in hazardous-duty pay, but they get awards and things like that.

We talked dive gear for awhile and I tried to find out how to con the city into letting me a training dive with them. (Harold Brazil did: I’d vote for him just for that.) They have some specialized masks and a new sonar complete with GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) and some freeze-resistant regulators with a silicone-filled ambient-pressure chamber and so on. Mostly they use a lot of training — they have their own sunken car just off the dock for practice — and fairly low-tech equipment. Theirs is pretty much the Marine Corps approach. Get by on guts and what you can get.

I don’t know politics. I know this city is getting more than its money’s worth with this outfit.

Comments are closed.