Rescue Divers Take Plunge despite Dangers

Article excerpt

Brown silt, illuminated in the ghostly globe of light cast by Paul Warchol's headlamp, glided into the divers mask 2 inches in front of his eyes.

The tether connecting him to the boat above suddenly snagged on something in the black, watery expanse behind him. A moment later, his headlamp cut out. His communication system followed, abandoning him to the hollow, rasping sound of breaths drawn from his air tank.

Alone in the darkness, nearly 18 feet below the Allegheny River's surface, Warchol willed off the clawing panic.

"You've got air. All is well. Just follow the rope back," Warchol said, recounting his first day training in the river with the Pittsburgh River Rescue Unit.

Divers face lethal, unpredictable conditions in one of the region's least-forgiving workplaces. They're called to swim under ice sheets, battle currents as strong as hurricane-force winds and feel their way around obstacles cloaked in blinding clouds of silt.

After the Aug. 1 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, divers picked through mangled wreckage for nearly three weeks, recovering 13 bodies. Pittsburgh's River Rescue Unit long has planned for such a disaster here, said James Holman, the unit's chief.

Warchol, like five others training to join the unit's 18 rescue divers, is a city paramedic. More than 20 city police officers serve alongside the divers, piloting boats, directing divers from the surface and training for counter-terrorism operations.

Many times, the work is recovery, not rescue, said Steve Phillips, 50, of Bethel Park, who helps train recreational divers.

"It's really tough and dangerous work," Phillips said. Often, "they're risking their lives to look for a dead body."

Victims have been revived after more than an hour under water, said John Soderberg, the unit's chief diving instructor and crew chief. After an hour, divers slow their search and take fewer risks.

"I will risk more if I have a lot to gain," Soderberg said. "We shouldn't lose anybody, but you can almost accept somebody dying to save somebody else's life."

'Everything's done by feel'

The unit can "splash" as many as eight divers at once, Holman said. Each is supported by a backup diver and a tender, who talks to the diver through a headset and holds the tether. If the diver gets stuck, his backup can plunge into the water, taking a pack with two air tanks, extra lights, a knife and a small saw.

Entanglements are unavoidable, said Randy Kovatich, 51, a 12- year veteran of the rescue unit. Debris -- downed trees, construction waste and old cars -- littler muddy river bottoms.

Federal Homeland Security grants helped the unit buy sonar to peer through the silt, but divers rarely see what they're looking for.

"Everything's done by feel," Kovatich said.

Vision isn't always a blessing. …