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MY VERO: Dive team members are very special breed

The 33 members of the Indian River County Fire Rescue Dive Team are, in fact, as much a special-ops unit as the Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT team.

The underwater tasks they are required to perform are as dangerous and specialized as any in this county.

But much of what they do goes unheralded, unnoticed, even unappreciated.

That’s because most of their calls lack the drama of a lifesaving rescue and, instead, fall under the category of recovery.

When they’re not locating and assisting in the removal of submerged cars, trucks and small planes, they’re searching the murky bottoms of our canals, lakes, swamps and rivers for guns, bullets and other evidence to be used by law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations.

Sometimes, they’re asked to find and recover bodies.

That was the case two Saturdays ago, when, at about 1:45 a.m., a 16-year-old boy on a bicycle was struck by a westbound vehicle near the crest of the 17th Street Bridge, where the fatal impact knocked him over the railing and into the Indian River Lagoon.

Two hours later, after police had arrested 21-year-old Jamie Nicole Williams on a drunk driving charge that would soon be upgraded to DUI manslaughter, Fire Rescue divers brought Cole Coppola’s body to the surface.

“We usually know before we don the gear whether it’s a rescue or recovery, but, even when you know you’re dealing with a recovery, it’s still sad for us,” said Capt. David Dangerfield, a senior member of the Dive Team with more than 25 years’ experience.

“We know it’s difficult for the family, and we’re very sensitive to that. But, not to diminish the family’s pain in any way, it’s difficult for us, too,” he added. “It sticks with you.”

For those reasons, Fire Rescue Assistant Chief and Public Information Officer Brian Burkeen declined my request to interview the divers who responded to the bridge incident.

He told me the department would rather not put the Coppola family or the divers in a position where they would have to relive – more than they already have – the heartbreaking circumstances of that tragic night.

So there’s no way for us to know exactly what the divers were thinking as they arrived on the scene, what challenges they encountered as they searched for the body and, after they had completed their mission, what emotional toll the call took on them.

Knowing such things, I believe, would give us a greater appreciation for and understanding of what these men do.

Yes, Dive Team members are well-trained, highly skilled professionals. They possess a rare courage and unfailing commitment to duty that goes far beyond mere public service.

They are a special breed.

But they’re also human.

They have fears. They have hearts. They have families.

Yet they choose to do a job that often surrounds them with peril. They frequently encounter blackout conditions, strong currents, entanglement with vehicles they’re working to recover and, sometimes, even alligators.

They do a job that forces them to deal with death, cope with haunting images, and observe and respect the grief felt by victims’ families.

By all accounts, these divers do their jobs exceptionally well.

“They’re utilized more than you think,” County Administrator Joe Baird said. “And they do a great job.”

Dangerfield, who travels the country to train other public-safety divers, went a step further, saying, “We have one of the best-trained dive teams in the state.”

He quickly added, though: “While there’s nothing like saving a life, it can be emotionally devastating when you know it’s too late and that the victim has already passed. I don’t care what type of personality it takes to do this job; when you’re bringing a victim out of the water, you still know you’ve got someone’s loved one in your hands. That isn’t easy.”

So Burkeen saw no good reason to ask the divers to talk publicly about their response to the crash on the bridge and how that experience might’ve affected them.

Instead, he summoned Dangerfield, who gladly spoke at length about all aspects of the Dive Team’s job, including the human side.

While he was not permitted to discuss any of the specifics of what happened in the wee hours of that Saturday morning, our conversation did provide some insight into what these guys do, how much training is required to do it and, as you’ve already seen, how it can impact them emotionally.

For example:

His explanation of how divers react when they know they’ve got at least a puncher’s chance of pulling a still-alive body from the water was especially telling … and uplifting.

“This job can be scary at times,” Dangerfield said. “There’s a little bit of craziness to it, because we don’t know what’s in the water. We know there’s always a chance something could go wrong and we might not live through it.”

And when rescues fail?

Dangerfield said some divers have difficulty accepting the outcome, repeatedly asking themselves: What could I have done differently?

Fire Rescue does provide counselors for divers struggling with the emotional impact of the job, but, more often than not, Dive Team members troubled by a particular operation choose to talk among themselves about their experiences.

“We help each other out,” Dangerfield said.

During a recovery operation, or even a failed rescue attempt, divers also help victims’ families by doing what they can to make an unbearable loss less painful.

“We understand what it would be like to lose someone and we have tremendous compassion for the families,” Dangerfield said. “The last thing we want to do is make a tragic situation worse.”

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