Tag Archives: Lessons Learned

Ouch! You never know what you might run into.

One of the shortfalls of becoming good at something is that you tend to forget about Murphy. It is human nature. We do things so well and are always striving to do those things faster and better, just to make lifehello my name is sign with blank white copyspace for text message

easier. However, once you cross those tactile and cognizant barriers you become open game for Mr. Murphy. I am referring to “ Murphy’s Law,” which basically says that if something can go wrong, it probably will.


I remember one time when I was called out at 3:00 am to respond to a single car accident where the vehicle ended up in a canal. When I arrived on the scene, the police unit and the heavy duty wrecker were already there and ready to go. Obviously, not much is happening at 3:00 am in this part of the county. It took me about fifteen minutes to arrive and my partner was still twenty minutes away. The car was sitting in about six feet of water across a thirty foot wide drainage ditch. The top of the vehicle was visible about one foot below the surface of the murky water, which was flowing past the car at about a quarter knot. (If a 1 knot current moves at 100 feet per minute, you figure it out!) Now let us reason this out logically: Five minutes to suit up, two minutes to hook up, five minutes to pull vehicle from the water, and five minutes to gear down. Once the vehicle is hooked and I am out of the water, there is no need for my partner to continue responding. Since we both had to report in at 8:00 am, this logic was a no-brainer.


Enter Mr. Murphy. As I began pulling the chain and hook across the  fifteen feet of no man’s land between me and the car in full SCUBA gear, I immediately realized that there was zero visibility. So I placed my outstretched hand in front of me so that I would feel the side of the car before I swam into it. After about five steps, my facemask struck something hard and immovable without warning. “OUCH!”



I had not considered the possibility of the windows being down, and as my probing hand entered the window my face introduced itself to the top of the door. (Murphy will always find a way in).   I then placed the chain around the right front wheel axle and attached the wrecker hook to the chain. I then exited the water and geared down. By the time I got back home I had developed a nice goose egg just above my right eyebrow. OUCH! You never know what you might run into.


-Written by Michael W. Gast

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I’m sorry. I thought you said it’s a…

As you probably know from earlier posts like: That water is deep…almost as deep as those misconceptions; that I find a lot of entertainment in what I do. A certain January evening was no exception.

I was out with some SRD divers who were training with me down here in Miami, at a canal that we frequently find cars in. It was late afternoon and the searching was coming to an end for the day. I checked in with the last team at the end of the canal and asked what they had discovered in their search area.

The team had been doing a parallel search, so there had only been one diver in the water. The diver then proceeded to tell me about all the random garbage and nick-knacks he found on the bottom. He got to the end of his list of findings when he hesitated for a moment and then said, trying to sound confident, “I also found a Jet-ski…………with wheels.”

Now I have learned that when someone tries to explain something that is out of the norm to others who have never seen it; those that have never seen said item, become instant experts on it. It’s basically a sport. People start forming teams by recruiting others to their view. Wild ideas are now simple logic, and suddenly the only person who has actually come in contact with the object of interest, is the only person who is wrong.

So pretty much with the divers comment, this was shaping up to be a big enough event that ESPN2 should probably send out a van and crew to cover it.

“I’m sorry. I thought you said it’s a Jet-ski with wheels.” I said this thinking he was just making up something for all of us to have a good laugh at. After all, that’s my kind of humor. “Um, yeah…it’s a Jet-ski…with wheels.”

I have a rule with my company. There is to be no shouting at the surface between divers and surface support while on an operation. Even if you’re at the other side of the lake, you handle all your discussions close enough to whisper if need be. It’s just plain professional. There is no need to be yelling all over the place, especially if you’re dealing with a sensitive situation like a body recovery.

So this being the rule, I called the diver to the waters edge and asked again what he had found.

The audience at the time was myself, the Lieutenant from the auto theft division, and an special agent from an insurance firm. So, in the interest of not having the diver embarrass himself, I called him over close and asked what it was he saw. He repeated his answer doing his best to sound like he wasn’t second guessing himself. “I’m not crazy Jordan. It’s a jet-ski with wheels.” I told him to go down again and confirm his claim.

Now while he was down, another unit pulled up and two officers joined the discussion of the mystery vehicle. Some said it was on it’s trailer. Others said it was probably a go-cart. The Lt. said it was a Quad (Four wheeler) because they would come out in that area and ride around. I was the team captain for the “On a trailer” team.

After about 5 minutes, the diver surfaced and came over to an eager group of experts just waiting for their moment to tell all the non-believers, I TOLD YOU SO!

Unfortunately the story was the same, and the diver was more confidant now. He explained how he had investigated the USO (unidentified sunken object) and described again in more detail about how it was a Jet-ski with wheels.

Ok, I’m sure there is a simple explanation for this. Like that it’s on it’s trailer and it has two wheels and a tongue and straps tying it down (Go team Trailer!).

So with my new found assurance that I was right, and with the encouragement of my newly drafted teammates, I told the diver to go down once more and look for the trailer. I then gave him a quick lesson on how to tell if it’s a trailer underwater and off he went.

Now the above water scene is down right hilarious. We have the original characters, plus those 2 officers, plus another 3 officers. Also the tow truck is on it’s way. Unnecessary you say? Well we can’t just leave all those people in suspense!

So once more the diver surfaces, spit’s out his regulator, and just starts smiling! “I knew it! I was right! It’s on it’s trailer.” I said to the Lt. as I nudged him with my elbow.

Ok, this guy is on his own now!!! No more trying to bail him out of embarrassment! He will just have to learn his lesson the hard way! Some diver he’ll turn out to be. Can’t even identify a trailer underwater!!!


The tow truck showed up. Bet’s were placed and battle lines were drawn. The moment of truth had arrived.

And here it comes…


It’s on it’s trailer I tell you…


A little further…


It’s a…it’s a……..What the….




Well then. It’s a Jet-ski………………..with wheels.

I know the picture is as blurry as one of Sasquatch, but it’s real. That right there my friends is why I love my job! You just never know what you might find!


Apparently, the engineer who created this beauty, had taken out the motor and everything else inside, and installed something similar to a go-cart frame. There was no seat and no engine, but I bet that thing rolled down hill like a champ!


This has gone down in my memory books as one of my favorite recoveries. It’s also the favorite of all those “experts” that were on scene as well. It’s times like these that remind us that we only know what we know. And I know now, there was no trailer. Maybe next time team. Maybe next time.


Search negatively my friends,



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The rise of technology, and the fall of common sense.

We got the call at about 9:30 AM. We loaded up, headed out, and arrived at a small lake that was nestled in the middle of a highway interchange. We were informed by Florida Highway Patrol that the incident had happened the night before, when a person driving a pickup truck, had lost control and driven off the interstate and gone into this lake. The driver had gotten out and was fine, but the truck was now making friends with the fishes.

I geared up and walked to the waters edge as my partner got the search line. We could see the tire tracks where the vehicle had gone in, and so using that as our LSP (Last Seen Point) we started an arc search. About 10 minutes later I located the vehicle that was, in fact, a pickup truck. It was just sitting there on all four wheels glistening in the early morning sun, about 120 feet from shore.

Well, to make this story short so I can talk on what this post is really about; we recovered the truck and all was good. But when I had come up after locating the truck, the wrecker operator was just laughing and shaking his head. He told us about a recovery he was at a few days before, where 6 off duty police officers had spent 6 hours using side scan sonar, looking for a 20 foot box truck in a 50 foot wide canal that was only 20 feet deep. He just laughed and said, “It took them 6 hours with all those guys and technology, and you two come out here, and in 10 minutes, find a pickup in a 40 foot lake with a piece of string!”

Does the title make sense now? You see where I’m going with this? Dive teams get sold on all kinds of new gadgets and gear, and pay for it by trading in there knowledge of the basic principles of Public Safety Diving. A sad side note: the amount of money these teams try to get to buy said gadgets, is money that could be used for upgrading basic equipment, or be used to pay for additional training days.

Give me money to pay a team some overtime to train with the basics, and I’ll give you better results then any piece of technology can produce. You think that’s a bold statement? Let’s take a look at a recent event in New Orleans.

I have a few things I would like to point out. First, is the amount of people who had been involved in the search. Multiple departments and volunteers assisted in looking for this missing teacher. The State Rep. in the video says that the area had been searched before but the vehicle had been missed. Now whether that was with side scan sonar or with search patterns I don’t know.

Second, is the relative closeness to shore where they located the missing teachers vehicle.

Third, there were a lot of other vehicle recovered! This tells me that they do not go into these areas regularly.

As I researched this story, I kept asking one question. Why was that car missed? If divers had been in there and they were proficient at their search patterns, why was that car not located?

We have to be careful that we are not sold into the thinking that big expensive toys make it all easier, or even more effective. You can only have one of two answers. I located the object, or the object was not in the search area. Are your search methods ingrained into your team so well that you can confidently give one of those two answers? Or do you have doubt when you get done with a search?

I’m not some stone age diver that thinks that technology will take over the world. I think that there some applications where side scan sonar is very useful. Heck, I was interviewed on the Nancy Grace Show one time about the use of side scan sonar in an investigation. In that investigation it was very helpful in locating the missing person. Things like side scan sonar and metal detectors can definitely be useful tools to assist your team, but I believe that you need to know and be able to perform effectively, the basic search patterns first!

So what I’m really trying to say is: Don’t sell your common sense to buy technology. That’s my point. Ok, I’m done.

Search negatively my friends!


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Jordan and the missing dead.

I had been a Special Response Diver for only 4 weeks. I was about to move into my 3rd phase of training at the International Alert Academy. I had chosen to go into Aquatic Operations as my specialty and it was the Friday before we were to start. We had just finished our end-of-ERT training ceremony and promotions and were ready to kick it back for the weekend, when the training officer over Aquatics, came up to those of us that would be going into his unit and said, “Pack your bags boys, we leave in the morning. We’re getting deployed to help with a body search that’s part of a murder investigation.”


After myself and the other guys had a mild heart attack from excitement, we tried to act cool and put on faces that said whatever, it’s just another day in the office. But who were we kidding?! This was the ultimate call out! We would be putting all that training to the test!


All through our training in Miami, we had found cars that were either stolen or insurance fraud. But this was huge! We were heading to Lubbock, Texas to assist the local Sheriff there. The whole trip out there, we thought about what our Instructor had taught us about searching for a drowned person or murder victim. “You never find a body. Bodies find you.” Cool as cucumbers. Ok, maybe cucumbers in a microwave.

We showed up to a very warm welcome from the requesting agency, who was just happy to have body’s there for this work. As we pulled up to the marina that was the staging area, we noticed a few other divers that would be coming out with us. We were told that these were Public Safety Divers who had been diving for many years. Great. Our first public performance, and now we have to deal with the pressure of impressing these veterans with all the stuff we think we know.

Our team of greenhorns quickly learned a valuable lesson. Don’t be intimidated because of titles. Let me explain what gave us this revelation.

First let me explain these two men that were gearing up with us. One guy was 6’2″ and probably weighed about 350 pounds. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. While putting on his wetsuit, through his grunts and groans, and winded banter, was telling us about how his wetsuit was custom made because he was so big. It cost him over $600 for this thing, and was a wonderfully bright yellow and red with purple accents. He was so proud! He needed almost 40 pounds on his weight belt!

His partner was next to him putting on the most complicated looking harness I’ve ever seen. One of my teammates asked him why he had so many knives and shears. He proudly answered that they never get in the water without a minimum of 5 cutting tools. You know…in case you drop the first 4 trying to cut your way out of the giant fishing line factory you plan on swimming into down there.

So as these two gentlemen were putting on their rescue helmets (again, not joking) we boarded the boat and set off to search.

The lake we were searching was not really deep in the search areas. Sometimes it was only 2-4 feet deep, but it still had to be searched. Where this lake lacked in depth, it made up for in vegetative growth. A lot of saw grass and decomposing saw grass root balls were along the bottom in our search areas.

You may be asking yourself right now why this is important. To most experienced Public Safety Divers it’s not really important; however to a straight up newbie it is. You see, the visibility was about 8 inches, and every time my hand touched one of these decomposing root balls my thought process would go something

like this…

*Hand touches slimy root ball and inhales regulator down esophagus*

“Ahhh I found a body!”

*Realizes it’s just a root ball*

“Woohoo! It’s not a dead body!”

*While pulling out regulator from esophagus comes to realization*

“Crap. Now I have to keep searching.”

And repeat.

So for two days this went on. We did not locate the victim, but we did recover a shotgun that was used in a different homicide. To say the least we learned a lot! Our first call out taught us some things that only the real world of public safety diving could teach us.

1st – We learned that just because they have a bunch of cool toys and expensive wetsuits, does not mean they are good divers. Their methods and equipment prevented them from searching effectively and efficiently. Don’t feel like you have to impress anyone. Just do your job and let others decide by your actions if you’re good enough.

2nd – Just because you did not locate a body or a gun does not mean you failed. Remember, there are only two answers… I located the object, or, the object was not in the search area. It takes a team to cover the area we covered in those two days. And as a team we accomplished our mission.

3rd – You can still breathe out of your regulator even if it’s down your esophagus! I would not have believed it unless I had experienced it so many times. I wonder if there is a specialty card for that…

Search negatively my friends!

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There are 2 kinds of divers in the world…

As a full time police diver for over twenty five years I have had the blessing and the curse of observing in-service training and its effect on the dive resource capability of various agencies. The purpose of in-service training is to hone the knowledge, skills and abilities (attitudes) of the diving resource so as to maintain a level playing field among the various diving personnel. The other side of the coin is simply training for the sake of training. This being said, what is the circumstance when your team meets for in-service training?  Since most of you reading this are in some way involved in underwater search & recovery or rescue I will leave you to decide the type of training the team in this story practiced. It started with a Z

One evening my partner and I were dispatched to a possible drowning in the south end of the county. Upon arrival the fire rescue divers were just exiting the water after searching for over forty-five minutes. Their on-scene commander had determined it was no longer a rescue, but is now a recovery for the police divers.

Since the first order of business was to gather information and determine the last scene point (also referred as a datum), and never having worked this rock pit before, I asked two of the eight divers about the depth and bottom condition. They both stated that the depth was over 60 feet with zero visibility.


With the sun setting and having talked to the one witness who claims to have watched the victim go under, my partner and I swam out to the last seen point with an anchor, down line, float and a search line. Because of the reported depth the down line was over sixty feet long, although when the anchor hit bottom I still had over forty feet of line in my hands.



After securing the excess line to the float we descended to twenty feet and landed next to a Ford van sitting on its wheels. Being over two hundred feet from shore in twenty feet of water on its wheels this van was an enigma to be solved later. Being able to see the whole van in this twilight the visibility was established as fifteen feet horizontal. Using the van as our base I tended my partner as he conducted an arc search starting out ten feet and arcing 180 degrees on each pass with ten feet increments each time. On the second pass my partner signaled that he had located the victim and secured the line around the victim’s chest.

The search that we conducted lasted less than five minutes.


What did we do differently than the eight divers who searched for over forty five minutes?

When I told the last fire diver on the scene that there was a Ford van in the middle of the lake, his response was,  “ I know, we put it there for training. This is one of our training lakes”.

Well it is your turn to determine the type of in-service that goes on here!







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