Under the surface: Regional dive teams constantly training, on alert
Murrysville Medic One members, looking for a team-building activity in 2013, stumbled upon a grant for scuba-diving certification.
"We ended up getting nine people certified for open-water diving," said Darrick Gerano, Medic One's director.
They didn't stop there.
What began as a recreational pursuit for the group has yielded one of the best-trained dive response teams in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Outside agencies request its assistance more than 20 times per year — one of the latest being to help with the search for Dylan Knopsnider, a 21-year-old Connellsville-area man who died last month after falling into Jacobs Creek in remote South Huntingdon.
Last year, Medic One performed multiple dives in the New Castle area, assisting the National Missing Persons Center on a cold case.
The work can be draining.
"Even with live incidents, we're often working with other teams," Gerano said. "Diving is very exhausting. Sometimes you need two teams just to keep operations going."
Medic One has worked with teams from Monroeville, Greensburg and Allegheny County, as well as the Lower Kiski Swift Water Rescue team, which has been around in some form since 1992, according to marine commander Dan Felack.
"Our team started out in the Braeburn Fire Department," said Felack, who has been a certified diver for 39 years.
In 2005, Braeburn dive team member and firefighter Mark Switala died after losing consciousness during a training dive in Lawrence County.
"Lower Burrell pulled the plug on the dive team at that time, and it got moved to Lower Kiski," Felack said.
Today, the Lower Kiski EMS has roughly a dozen certified divers.
"About four years ago, we started four people through dive training, so we have various levels of skill here, from people who have been with the team since it started, like myself, to folks who only have a couple years' experience," Felack said.
In Murrysville, Medic One has 22 divers — 14 of whom are certified for public safety-related dives. Its divers helped the Allegheny County Bomb Squad clear bridges during the G20 summit in 2009 in Pittsburgh.
"We got into a lot of neat places doing that," Gerano said.
Diving the Three Rivers
Members of the Pittsburgh EMS River Rescue Unit, stationed at a boathouse near PNC Park, also were part of the team clearing those bridges in 2009.
"There's always a lot of different things to see in the rivers," said the unit's operations chief, Richard Flinn. "We do just about anything, from towing disabled boats to emergency searches for people we believe have gone under the surface."
Unlike a pond or smaller creek, divers from the River Rescue Unit, formed in 1986, must contend with deeper water, stronger currents and more debris.
"It's an elite unit," Flinn said. "Our divers go through more than 900 hours of training to be part of this team, and we're called upon by several different agencies, not just local but also state and federal, to assist them in searches and recoveries."
Divers in the unit must do a minimum of eight training dives per year. Visibility in the rivers ranges from up to 15 feet in the winter — when there is no algae growing in the rivers — to "can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face" in warm weather.
In a river system that is chock full of debris, low visibility can be a serious hazard.
"You can go down there and run yourself right into a rock or a tree, or either of those things can come down through the water column and hit you," Flinn said. "Our divers always work tethered as well, so we are constantly making sure their lines don't get tangled up in something."
Into the unknown
Uncertainty is a staple of underwater dives, whether for training or in real-life emergencies and rescues.
Gerano said the nerves he felt on his first dive aren't as strong these days. But "to be honest, it's that way anytime you're in a new body of water," he said.
On their first dive, Medic One employees are instructed to go to the bottom and wait 30 seconds to get their breathing under control and get a feel for their environment.
Often, a "feel" is all they will get because the visibility is so poor in most bodies of water they enter.
"Visibility and current are the two biggest things that make a dive difficult, followed by water temperature," Gerano said.
While diving in Jacobs Creek, Gerano said visibility was only a few inches and the current was so swift that a roving underwater camera from the Allegheny County Bomb Squad could not be controlled remotely.
'You just never know'
Bowling balls. Parking meters. An industrial clamp. Rusty hand saws.
Those are just a few of the items in Medic One's "box of weird stuff" that has been found at the bottom of creeks, rivers and lakes.
"We're constantly finding guns, even on our training dives," Gerano said. "We hand those over to the police in case they've been used in a crime."
Lower Kiski divers have made similarly bizarre discoveries.
"We went down to Washington County one time on a search helping the state police look for a handgun used in a shooting," Felack said. "We found the guts of a coin changer. We found a hunting rifle with a scope. You just never know what's going to be down there."
Gerano said one of his favorite places to dive is the Gilboa rock quarry in Toledo, Ohio. Dive teams frequently train at quarries because they have better visibility, he said.
"They have a lot of underwater features there, including an old Learjet," he said. "And I'm a big fisherman, so it's still kind of neat to see the fish in their natural habitat."
While it can be sad and even frightening to recover a dead body from the bottom of a creek, it is the job that Gerano, Felack and fellow divers train to do.
"When you're out on a mission, and you can retrieve an item or a victim and bring closure to an incident," Gerano said, "that's really fulfilling."
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.