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Divers brave hazards to bring closure


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 22, 1999

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Swift currents, cold water, low visibility and the chance of becoming entangled in wreckage are just a few of the hazards recovery divers encounter.

"It is a job you do, a public service," said Bob Janowski of Oceanside, N.Y. "It is not something you like to talk about."

A restaurant supplier by trade, Janowski spends most of his free time scuba diving in extreme environments -- caves and deep water wrecks. So when disaster strikes, he is often the first to be called.

"I have the equipment and the training," he said. "I do whatever I can to help."

When TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island, Janowski was one of the first divers in the water. By the time his work was done, he had recovered 17 bodies.

Last Saturday, when John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crashed off Martha's Vineyard, Janowski was there to assist local authorities. And while he declined to discuss specifics of the search, at the request of the Kennedy family, Janowski offered some insight into the mind-set of a diver faced with the grim task of recovering a body.

"You try to remain impersonal," he said. "But at times you can't help it."

He recalled a haunting incident that occurred after the TWA crash.

"It was my last recovery, a young boy floating about 10 feet below the surface," he said. "The boy was staring straight at me, eyes wide open. He looked right into my eyes, and it is something I will never forget."

Most body recoveries, including those done in the Tampa Bay area, are performed by local authorities. In the Kennedy case, Massachusetts State Police divers assisted their U.S. Navy counterparts.

When a police helicopter crashed into Tampa Bay on a frigid January day in 1995, rescue divers from at least eight police and fire departments in the bay area spent eight days searching for victim Norris Epps.

"You can be a great diver, but that doesn't mean you will be able to handle this line of work."


Tampa Police Department dive team

"It is a difficult job," said Sgt. Alan Draffin of the Tampa Police Department's dive team. "You can be a great diver, but that doesn't mean you will be able to handle this line of work."

Besides battling a strong 11/2-knot current, the recovery divers working off Martha's Vineyard on Wednesday faced the added danger of depth.

"With the wreckage so deep, 115 feet, the divers couldn't spend more than 15 minutes on the bottom," Draffin said. "Add the great physical stress of the work, and the chances of having a problem like the bends increases dramatically."

The 8-foot visibility, however, was relatively good, compared to the near-zero conditions often encountered in Tampa Bay.

"Most of the diving we do is at night," said Cpl. Brad Millican of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "Even though we have lights, the water is usually so murky that you can barely see your hand in front of your mask."

Draffin said the Tampa Police Department divers, as those of most departments, are trained to work in an "overhead environment," where free access to the surface is not possible.

"You'll be under a bridge and just get totally entangled in fishing line," he said. "You need people who can keep their cool and work their way out of a situation, or remain calm until help comes."

Capt. Greg Brown, who was a member of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office dive team for 13 years, said the mental aspect of the job is the most difficult.

"You have to be detached, but not too detached," he said. "At times, you feel like quitting and just saying they're not there.

"But the victim's family needs to have closure and that means finding a body," continued Brown, who is also executive director of the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists. "If you feel like you are looking for a member of your own family, you won't give up."

Mark Leonard, a Lake City man who has recovered the bodies of 21 cave diving victims, said he takes a philosophical approach.

"There is more to life than just living here on earth," he said. "When somebody dies, it helps to remember that you are just dealing with a body, somebody's remains. The soul, the spirit, the karma have moved on. That is the only way to deal with it."

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