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Routine dive not routine

| Monday, Dec. 4, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

David Yelle almost didn't have time to go on a routine training dive Saturday, but his 15 minutes in the Allegheny River may have solved a three-year-old mystery.

He found a car belonging to a Pittsburgh-area man who Tarentum police said had been missing since Dec. 2, 2003. The car was pulled from the river Sunday -- three years to the day from the man's disappearance -- and police found skeletal remains of an adult male inside.

Sgt. James Newcomer said the man's teeth were intact and would be checked against dental records in an attempt to confirm his identity. Newcomer could not release the name of the man until the identity is confirmed and relatives are notified.

Yelle, an experienced diver, wanted to take a dip in the river to get accustomed to being in cold water. He is an assistant divemaster with the Mon Valley Divers, part of the Rostraver-West Newton EMS.

Yelle managed to finish his errands early and squeezed in a half hour before dark to get into the water near the Tarentum Bridge. The fast current forced him to stay away from the bridge and close to shore, conditions that led him right to where the car had settled in the 10-foot-deep water, between 60 and 70 feet from the river's north shore.

"No matter how well trained you are, it is hard to find things in a river that size, even if you know where to look," Yelle said. "The odds of unintentionally finding something this important are incredibly small."

Yelle initially thought it was a rock, but despite having only six inches of visibility in the water, he found the license plate and called Tarentum police.

The car was 190 feet from the ramp that led diagonally into the river, Newcomer said. The hood of the car was facing the shore, but Newcomer was not positive the car traveled down that ramp.

"We'll never know where exactly he entered the river," Newcomer said. "There's almost no way we can find out how long he was in there."

The retrieval process was complicated by large amounts of fishing wire in the water between the car and ramp, which snared rescue divers. The Eureka volunteer fire department coordinated the recovery, along with the Arnold and Lower Burrell fire departments, Air Search Rescue and Tarentum police.

"I think God wanted the mystery to be solved," Yelle said. "Diving today was an afterthought, and I just stayed close to the shore because the current was so strong. It must have been hard for his family to lose him so close to the holidays, but hopefully this year they will have some closure."

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