Seneca RiverThere was zero visibility in the Seneca River — and the temp was 40 degrees F — when New York State Police Troop D entered the water.
On that warm-for-January morning there had been some resistance to the choice of a site for the monthly practice dive. The gray, wind-rippled water was cold — 40 degrees F — and visibility in the Seneca River on the north side of New York state’s Onondaga Lake was zero. Complaining and joking about their working conditions, the New York State Police Troop D dive team suited up in drysuits and full-face masks and began entering the river from the east bank.
Once in the water, the divers spread out on the bottom in different directions, alert for the feel of any promising old bottles or other artifacts as they groped through the dark. This river, just north of Syracuse, had been in use for transport, commerce and recreation for centuries. Most team members had spaces on their shelves for bottles, clay pipes, crockery and other finds, some predating Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.
As he was searching, Trooper Joe Lamardo literally bumped into a large object and felt his way down the length of what he initially thought was a sunken tree. Zebra mussels covered its surface. Then Lamardo’s hand slid into the void of a wheel well and he realized by feel that he’d discovered an automobile in 15-20 feet of black swirl.
The Back Story
Rewind to a practice dive the previous November. Team member Trooper Derek Cerza found an encrusted high school class ring in the clear waters of Green Lakes State Park and tossed it onto a shallow ledge. Lamardo was interested in trying to return the ring to its owner and spent some time cleaning it up and doing some basic research on the name engraved on the inside of the band. The man who answered the door at the listed address was surprised that a trooper would be asking for his nephew, who had died in an electrical accident 15 years earlier. The ring-owner’s brother would be visiting in a few days though, and the uncle was sure he’d be grateful for the ring’s return. While talking in the house, Lamardo noticed bottles and items on the shelves, which looked like dive treasure. Yes, the uncle had been a diver, and many of the items were from local waters. Several of the bottles had been found in the Seneca River at Onondaga Lake Park – as a result of this conversation, Lamardo mentioned it to the team, and the site was chosen by democratic discussion and cajolery for the Troop D January practice dive.
Recovering the Vehicle
As he felt his way around the vehicle, Lamardo eventually located a registration tag. He bent and twisted the plate to remove it from the vehicle and surfaced to get his bearings and relay the plate to a teammate on the shore. Zebra mussels and debris had encrusted the tag so badly that it was necessary to read the stamped registration number from the back.
Joe sat on the bank while team members checked DMV files for information. Trooper Mike Scheibel was back in a few minutes; the plate was a “hit.” Nearly six years earlier the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Dept. had entered the registration number in connection with a missing/endangered person investigation: A woman had disappeared from her home during the night and there had been no sign of her or the car since. Sheriff’s deputies were en-route, a tow truck dispatched.
Back in the water, Lamardo lugged cable and hook to the vehicle as the operator played out slack. It was impossible to inspect the vehicle or its interior while it remained in the river.
By the time the cable tightened and the vehicle began its slow passage along the bottom back to the shore and light, a small crowd of officers had gathered on the bank, their backs to the perimeter of crime-scene tape. Inch by inch the car emerged from the water, all of its surfaces covered with mussels and grunge, dingy water draining onto the ground. That day, Onondaga County Sheriffs Department closed a missing person case, and the grateful family of a 36-year-old woman had the consolation of knowing where her journey had ended those years before.
Both recoveries related here were connected. On a police-team practice dive a ring is found. The search for the ring’s owner leads to casual information about a potential dive site. A subsequent practice dive at this site leads to the discovery of a vehicle and a woman missing for nearly six years.
The time spent on practice dives for public safety teams is important for keeping skills honed and team members ready to respond to the “real” thing. But practice can turn into real without warning. You never know what you’ll run into in zeroviz.
Charles “Chuck” Ford was scuba certified in 1974 in Monterey, CA, while stationed with the U.S. Navy. A retired member of the N.Y. State Police, he served on the Troop D Dive Team for 18 years, several of those years as Troop D Senior Diver.
Meet the Team
The New York State Police Underwater Recovery Team is comprised of eight Troop Teams responsible for searching any of New York state’s waters to recover any police-related items or persons. Following a selection process which involves fitness testing, interviews, swimming and mild underwater stress and claustrophobia evaluations, Novice School candidates volunteer for several weeks of challenging training. Class and pool sessions lead to open-water dives and realistic scenarios. Mid-winter ice-dive training follows in a few months.
Upon graduating Novice School, troopers return to patrol duties in their respective troops and are called to dive on an as-needed basis. Annual in-service training and monthly practice dives keep members up-to-date and ready for assigned details. Teams are cajoled, prodded and herded by Troop Senior divers who answer to the Division Dive Officer (or “Dive God”), a position currently held by Trooper Thomas Barden.