A Unique Team of Forensic Divers from Florida State University Search for Natalee Holloway, the Alabama 18-Year-Old Who Vanished in Aruba; INTO THE DEEP: DIVING FOR NATALEE

By Murphy, Bridget | The Florida Times Union, July 17, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Unique Team of Forensic Divers from Florida State University Search for Natalee Holloway, the Alabama 18-Year-Old Who Vanished in Aruba; INTO THE DEEP: DIVING FOR NATALEE


Murphy, Bridget, The Florida Times Union


Byline: BRIDGET MURPHY

ORANJESTAD, Aruba -- Waves crash on the craggy coast as Dave and Robin Holloway corral logs that the sea spit toward the California Lighthouse.

Casting them back, the couple watches the Caribbean swallow them whole, a cave below the white-sand shore sucking them into its abyss.

In the 40 days since Dave's daughter and Robin's stepdaughter Natalee Holloway disappeared during a vacation on this Dutch Caribbean island, this 50-foot wide underwater cave is one of the few places search and rescue workers haven't scoured for signs of the 18-year-old Alabama woman.

But within hours, a team of elite diving detectives from Florida State University's Panama City campus will make the plunge, using a blend of science and crime scene protocols to explore the cave. With a 10-pound, sonar-equipped remotely operated robot, they'll also record images of the cave's crannies as they master a danger-filled dive natives of this 19-by-6-mile island shy away from.

The underwater crime scene investigators, recruited by a non-profit Texas group coordinating the volunteer search, are here to do what no one else can: check the places declared not checkable.

The team came together about three years ago after the university won a $300,000 Homeland Security grant. Government investigators found insufficiencies in America's ability to probe underwater crime scenes in the wake of the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, a blast that killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others. The university got money to start a unit that would remedy that, program officials said.

Reputed as the only team of its kind in the United States, its Aruban mission is to rule out areas where the woman could be, to support the volunteer search and recovery corps' goal: bringing Natalee back home.

'WE DON'T GO HALFWAY'

"No luck, huh?" Dave Holloway asks the divers.

Hours after the underwater crime scene investigation, or UCSI, team finishes diving the cave and a lagoon on another part of the island, the Holloways are with them at Brickell Bay Beach Club to talk search strategy.

The high-rise hotel is a five-minute walk from the Holiday Inn, where the Holloways occupy room 7114. It is the same room Natalee slept in during her vacation with more than 100 fellow graduates of Mountain Brook High School before she went missing after leaving a nightclub with a local 17-year-old boy.

"One more off the list," diver Mark Feulner reassures Holloway, boosting his spirits after another failed day of searching.

Feulner, 34, is the dive team's details man. An underwater archaeologist born in New York and raised in Florida, Feulner is two semesters short of a Ph.D. in criminology. A technology specialist, Feulner learned during his first dive in 1989 the importance of meticulous pre-dive preparation. He and his dive group arrived at a Florida spring to find another diver suffering from an embolism after making a mistake underwater. A paramedic in Feulner's group started first aid when the other group's divemaster didn't know what to do. The rookie diver never forgot, and be it a body bag or extra batteries, he is the man with the mental checklist.

"We gave it a real good look," diver Dan Walsh, the team's technical engineer, tells the Holloways as he introduces himself.

The guts of the team, the cigar-chomping retired Coast Guard diver has 25 years of military scuba ops under his weight belt and is a few classes away from earning a master's degree in criminology. The 47-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native's diving resume includes recovering astronauts' remains after the Challenger explosion in 1986. He got hooked on diving in 1978 when he took his first plunge after carving a hole in the icy crust of a Pennsylvania quarry.

Before they watch a video the underwater robot captured of the team's sea cave dive, the Holloways also greet another team member, Professor Dale Nute. …

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