Into the depths
SUMMIT COUNTY – As 22-year-old Summit County Water Rescue Team diver Nate Giles prepared to submerge himself in the frigid waters of the Dillon Reservoir on April 7, he tried his best to forget the onlooking media and law enforcement and focus on the task at hand: There had been an accident, a truck was resting on a steep embankment 35 feet below and a victim was possibly inside.”It was pretty intense,” said Giles, the first diver into the water. “There were a lot of people there and there was a lot of pressure to, you know, get it done.”Protected by a dry suit, Giles dropped into the 38-degree water to search Patricia McCormick’s NAPA truck the morning after the team located the wreckage using underwater cameras. Giles lowered himself through a small, triangle-shaped hole cut into the 3-foot thick ice and navigated the cold, but relatively clear waters. Once he reached the crumpled truck, he snapped photographs of the accident scene and confirmed that McCormick’s body was not inside the vehicle. Giles described his intial reaction as disappointed.”Everyone thought the body was going to be in the truck,” Giles said. “Everyone really wanted (McCormick’s) daughter to have closure.”Giles and nine other divers spent the remaining daylight hours exploring the depths of the reservoir, but didn’t find any answers.Closure finally came the following week when the melting ice revealed the Dillon Valley woman’s body about a quarter-mile from where the truck came to rest, ending a four-month mystery on her whereabouts.For Giles, the entire operation – his first major mission in the year since he joined the team – provided him with real-life experience unmatched even by the rescue team’s rigorous training schedule.
“You don’t want bad things to happen, but you train for it,” said Giles, a part-time Beaver Creek ski patroller and EMS worker who commutes from Eagle County to be on the team. “The best training is actual experience. You can train until you’re blue in the face, but until you actually get out there and start using what you learn …”High-altitude divingSummit County’s Water Rescue Team – currently about six members deep – is the highest altitude based volunteer team in the world, but with that distinction comes dangers and adjustments unique to the area.The depth limit when diving between 9,000 and 10,000 feet in elevation is 80 feet, which is equivalent to about 130 feet at sea level. Each year team members study diving physics, high-altitude diving tables and high altitude decompression tables.If something goes wrong and a diver experiences decompression sickness, or the bends, the closest decompression chamber is in Denver; and because Summit County is surrounded by mountain passes, a sick diver would have to rise in elevation to access the Front Range, which makes the situation worse, said team leader Cris Bezinque, a former off-shore commercial diver.That rattles the nerves of Sheriff John Minor, who remains very cautious of the difficulties and potentially fatal risks in having to evacuate someone to Denver.”Ultimately, I’m the one responsible for their safety, along with Cris (Bezinque), but I rely on him a lot to tell me: Is this safe?” Minor said, who cited this month’s mission as the most dangerous dive endeavor he’s witnessed.
Bezinque depends on a simple risk benefit analysis to make a judgment call on a particular situation: If the risks outweigh the benefits, it’s a no-go.The worst hazards lurk beneath the water’s surface, such as invisible fishing line or ropes in the water, Bezinque said. If divers are working around vehicles, they must avoid being snagged on sharp metal and be wary of the vessel shifting and trapping them or dragging them to an unsafe depth.Conditions on the icy dive into Dillon Reservoir two weeks ago were prime compared with other situations Bezinque’s seen in his 14 years with the team, such as one mission to Wolford Mountain Reservoir in Grand County to find a drowned Marine.”Visibility was maybe a half-inch. We were running into barbed wire fences and sagebrush that was probably about four-feet high,” Bezinque said.The inherent risk involved with high altitude rescue diving is the reason Bezinque places such a strong emphasis on training, evident by the rows of plaques and diving course certifications covering his office walls.Divers train twice a week, year-round, amounting to a minimum 12-hour commitment between classroom and water sessions. Bezinque teaches or assists in every class.Team members learn skills like underwater crime scene investigation, swiftwater rescue, ice diving techniques, underwater rigging and equipment maintenance.As volunteers, they forgo free time or paying jobs, and for some the time commitment proves to be too burdensome.”We lose a lot of team members and potential team members because we train so much, but when a mission like (the truck recovery) comes up, they understand why the training is so stringent,” Bezinque.
Water rescue rootsThe water rescue team was born from a tragedy. In the summer of 1977, a sailboat capsized in the Dillon Reservoir trapping two of the vessel’s female passengers underwater when it sunk.Retired Colorado State Patrol corporal Dave Batura lived in Summit County at the time. Knowing of Batura’s background in off-shore commercial diving, the sheriff called on him to help recover the sailboat, with the help of two of Batura’s local diving buddies and a commercial dive group from Denver.After the incident, Batura realized that the county needed a water rescue team, so he and his friends who had helped with the recovery began recruiting recreational divers. The county supplied a mere $200 budget, which the burgeoning team used to purchase an adapter for the air compressor at the Frisco fire station in order to refill their air tanks.Over the years, the team bounced between the jurisdiction of the county and the town of Frisco as they took on more team members and a support crew.Batura taught whitewater rescue techniques, diving techniques, crime scene investigation, hazardous materials classes and eventually pushed for mandatory near cold water drowning training for all firefighters, law enforcement personnel and Summit Medical Center staff.
That particular knowledge paid off on May 1, 1982, when the team was paged to respond to the Blue River where a 5-year-old boy had drown. By the time they arrived, a group of fishermen had found the boy floating in the water. Batura and his team members began CPR and rushed him to the medical center. He made a full recovery.Batura ran into the boy’s father more than a decade later in Grand County, and the man hadn’t forgotten the rescuer who saved his son’s life.”I was lucky enough to be able to go to his son’s graduation from Mesa College in Grand Junction,” Batura said.Unfortunately, many times with water rescue the stories don’t end as happily, Batura said.In the team’s beginning years, Batura strived for the team to be dubbed water rescue as opposed to dive rescue so people didn’t just think of them as a group that would recover bodies.He knew he had succeeded when a dispatcher paged him out for a woman whose foot was stuck in a hot tub.”When that happened, I realized we had come of age because dispatchers were thinking if water is involved, you call the water rescue team,” Batura said. Batura left the team in 1984 when he moved to Denver.
More than 20 years later, the team continues to be a vital component of Summit County’s emergency response model.Although these days the sheriff’s office budgets $8,800 for the rescue team, the volunteers still rely heavily on grants and donations to buy the thousands of dollars worth of dive equipment required for the job.The desire to help the community and victims’ families keeps volunteers like Bezinque and Eagle County’s Giles – who said he first knew he wanted to be a public safety diver at age 6 – interested in braving icy waters, fast-moving rivers and murky lakes.”It’s extremely challenging, and you know somebody’s gotta do it,” Giles said.Summit County Water RescueThe all-volunteer water rescue team responds to emergencies all over the Western Slope including vehicle and boat recovery and salvage, river rescues, ice rescues and night diving and zero visibility operations. They are called out anywhere from five to 30 times per year. The team was paged out locally for the second time in one month on Thursday to help search Keystone Lake for a missing resort employee.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13625, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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