TERRE HAUTE —
Inflating lift bags to turn over a car sunk in Lim Lake took a few hours Monday for 12 Indiana Conservation Officers completing a public safety dive rescue specialist school.
The goal was not to remove the car from the water, because it is often used for diving instruction.
“It’s neat to lift a whole car up and push it around with your hands,” said officer Max Winchell, who taught the six-week dive school.
But more practically, being able to rotate in the water sunken vehicles or other large items involved in a criminal event can preserve evidence without causing further damage when it is pulled from the water.
To lift a car takes about 4,000 pounds of air, Winchell said, and in Monday’s exercise, it took at least four lift bags inflated via air tanks to raise the long-sunken car from the silty bottom and reposition it closer to shore.
“A lot of the stuff we’ve done, when you first hear the task, it seems like ‘how can that be done’,” said Marki Hoskins, the first female conservation officer to complete the dive school. But she said she gets a good feeling training on the technical skills taught in the class, such as how to flip the sunken car.
The 12 new divers in the class are becoming members of a 48-officer team of certified dive specialists. Hoskins, who is assigned to Johnson County, is the first female member in the 37-year history of the team.
Like many of the other team members, she has been recreational diving for several years. “I really wanted to be in law enforcement since high school,” she said, “and this seemed like a really good fit. I love the water and being outdoors. I love this job every day.”
Conversation officer Ryan Vanderlugt of Huntington said he also had dive experience before the school and wanted to add to his work skills.
“I like being able to provide a service to the people of Indiana,” Vanderlugt said. “Being able to breathe underwater is pretty cool. I’ve done a little recreational diving, but not like this in black water and with dry suits.”
The students were trained to Dive Rescue International requirements and will met Department of Homeland Security standards, such as doing fully encapsulated diving with full face mask, dry suits, redundant air supply, underwater hard line communications and underwater metal detectors.
The skills covered included fitness, black water diving, boat-based and short-based search patterns, drowning victim and body recovery, evidence recovery, light salvage and lift bag operations, vehicle recovery, deep diving and swift-water diving.
The training occurred in week-long sessions since late July, using quarries and lakes in Vigo County and the Wabash River.
Conservation officers respond to and investigate drowning incidents and other types of water-related investigations, including boating accidents, vehicle recovery and swift-water rescues.
Indiana averages around 45 drownings per year, Winchell said, and the eight-county district including Vigo County averages about three per year, although some years have been much higher.
While the surface temperature of the lake water on Monday was about 71 degrees, the deeper area around the car was around 50 degrees — cold enough that dry suits were required.
A recent training at Green Valley Lake northwest of West Terre Haute resulted in the recovery of several items — lawn mower, trolling motor, propeller, mountain bike, road closed sign, old safe with the door and hinges removed, chain saw and a scuba flipper from a dive Winchell trained on about 15 years ago.
A lot has changed about public safety diving since he began, Winchell said. Underwater communication has revolutionized what can be done, he said, because people on the surface can share information with the divers and monitor their breathing for safety.
The officers also learned to use side scan sonar to search for objects before they dive.
“If there is a boating accident, that can be a big search area,” Winchell explained. “With sonar, we can see a boat or a body and find evidence items and drop a buoy on it, then send a diver down. It not only speeds up the process, but if there is a family waiting on shore, it helps get them information quickly.”
It is expensive to outfit a diver with a dry suit and all of the equipment needed to be on the dive team, Winchell said. That is why the conservation officers rely on DHS grants to outfit the dive team and purchase an equipment trailer than can be taken to catastrophic events such as a bridge collapse.
“When it’s needed, we’ll have it,” Winchell said of the scuba team trailer.
Indiana has about 200 conservation officers through the Department of Natural Resources. There are currently some openings in the department. Up to 25 percent of the conservation officers can be trained for the dive team.
“We have river rescue and cave rescue and canine teams, and the scuba team,” Winchell said, “but obviously, this is the coolest one.”
Dive team members train once a month at sites around the state. They have become proficient in using underwater metal detectors to find small items, such as handguns, knives and other weapons that can be hidden by murky water and silt.
And the services of the dive team are valued by other public service agencies around the state.
Vigo County Emergency Management Agency director Dr. Dorene Hojnicki has arranged for meals to be transported to training sites so training can continue throughout the day. The Riley and Honey Creek fire departments have also hosted overnight accommodations for conservation officers, saving the state thousands of dollars in hotel fees.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254.