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Sheriff's Dive Team
Dedication To Their Job Brought
Two Separate Plane Crashes To Closure

Estevan Martinez

Dive Boats

On March 28, 2001, three occupants of a Cessna 172 crashed into the ocean of Santa Monica Bay. For three days, members of the United States Coast Guard, L.A. County Sheriff's Rescue Boat, L.A. County Lifeguards Baywatch, and Santa Monica Harbor Patrol searched the ocean for survivors, but only found the body of one person floating on the surface.

After three days, the search was suspended by the Coast Guard, however crews from the Sheriff's Department continued searching for the wreckage. Adding to the complexity of the search was the fact that it was seven miles from the nearest harbor, and the visibility underwater was limited at two or three feet at best.

I was asked to speak to one of the family members of the victims. I could sense the frustration in her voice as she was explaining to me about the limited information her family was receiving from the various agencies involved. I suggested that she or any other family member phone me for information as I was directly involved with the operation and the information would be first hand. Following this conversation, I was in contact everyday with the twelve family members of the victims. They traveled from New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. to search for answers and to mourn for the pilot and passengers.

Adding to the challenge of locating the victims was a comment one of the family members made to me, "We will not leave until our loved ones are located and recovered." He made this comment despite my comment that there was a possibility the wreckage and the victims would never be located.

In order to help with the grief of the family members, I contacted the Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills which provides services at the behest of the Sheriff's Department. Handling the family members was an extremely delicate situation considering they were receiving information and speculations from various other sources. One source told them the plane could have floated for several hours and that the pilot and passengers may be floating in a life raft somewhere in Santa Monica Bay.

I knew I had to be as truthful as possible and at the same time compassionate. I offered to take the family members out to the estimated site of the wreckage and they immediately accepted the offer. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the therapeutic effect it had on the family. I explained what areas had been searched and what the limitations were of our dive operations.

Hand Held Sonar

We made several dives using the DLS-1 diver hand held sonar. This is the same device that located the black box of TWA flight 800 and a recent crash in Canada. They understood we were dedicated to doing everything possible to help locate the wreckage and their missing family members. During my conversation with the family I added that one of our deputies (Drew Durazo) purchased a computer program that might assist in locating the possible site of the wreckage and that we were going to test the information the next day. I also told them that we had scheduled for the same night to use two K-9 dogs trained in locating the scent of cadavers on the surface of water. This did not turn out successful. This method of searching usually requires ideal conditions including flat seas and low winds.

Plane Engine

I explained to the family that a towable side scan sonar would help enormously with the search, but that this equipment was not available to us and they would need to contract with a commercial service company in order to access one. When they left our boat each family member gave me a hug, thanking me for keeping them informed and showing compassion. I could barely hold back my tears and for the first time I truly had an idea of the pain and suffering they were going through.

The family eventually hired a commercial service company with access to side scan sonar. Meanwhile, we continued using the plot information provided to us by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Wreakage

On April 9 while conducting dive training, the lifeguards came across a small piece of plane debris. The lifeguards made a phone notification to the Sheriff Emergency Service Detail who in turn asked us to conduct a search with our diver hand held sonar.

We made two dives with the hand held sonar, but with negative results. At the same time the commercial service company the family hired was searching one mile northeast of our location. It was getting late and our divers were running low on dive time. We contacted the commercial service and asked them to scan the area of the recently found debris with the towable side scan sonar. After five passes the sonar came across a large object. I then boarded their vessel to confirm the image and then recommended that we dive this site.

Since the towable side scan sonar is towed between 65 to 100 feet behind the boat, we were not guaranteed the exact location, but a defined searching area. We placed a marker buoy in the area and prepared for what could be our last hope for the day, the sun was down and the seas had now kicked up to four to five foot swells. I went down with the hand held sonar while Deputy Drew Durazo acted as my safety diver.

As we descended down to 80 feet in the 51 degree water, I was surprised to discover that we had seven to ten foot visibility, a rare occurrence in our waters. I turned the sonar on, set it to 120 feet and started scanning the area. I made several turns before I heard a faint sound in the distance. I pointed to Deputy Durazo and indicated with my hand the direction I was going to travel. As I started swimming the pitch of sound became more pronounced. This was the first time we have used this unit in an actual operation and because we had already covered approximately 50 feet, I stopped and started scanning the area again to reconfirm the contact I was receiving from the sonar.

After approximately 100 feet we saw a large object, the wreckage had been located.

Propeller

I didn't want to spend any additional time exploring the wreckage because Deputy Durazo, who was in charge of the video documentation, needed to reserve what dive time he had left. At these depths our dive time is limited in order to avoid the possibility of decompression sickness (DCS). We marked the site with a marker float and surfaced. By now the sun was gone, the seas were kicking and our dive time was limited.

Deputies Drew Durazo of Marina del Rey Station and Thomas Hitchcock of Emergency Services Detail dove to the submerged aircraft. Digital video and digital still photography of the wreckage and its victims was obtained by Deputy Durazo while Deputy Hitchcock acted as his safety diver. A copy of this visual documentation was turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board for their investigation.

As a result of this footage we were able to determine the safest way to recover the victims, one of which was pinned under the engine and propeller.

The operation called for using a stage lift method to remove the plane from the victim in order to make his recovery. This consisted of rigging a line to the plane that had a loop every 20 feet. Lift bags would be placed at the first 20 foot loop and then air would be dispensed into the bags until the wreckage slowly ascended 20 feet from the bottom. This would be repeated several times until the wreckage surfaced.

The following day, divers from Marina del Rey Station, Emergency Services Detail, The Marine Company, and Lifeguards successfully recovered both victims and the aircraft without any glitches.

The family of the victims were finally able to start the healing process.

Recovery

Several weeks later we were able to repeat the process when the same agencies recovered the wreckage and two victims of a plane that had been missing since February 15, 2001.

Two light planes each carrying two people from a flying club in Long Beach, collided over the San Pedro Channel and plunged into the ocean just outside the Long Beach Breakwater.

Victims of one aircraft were located the next day, but the search for the second aircraft was suspended indefinitely by the Long Beach Fire Department when five scuba divers were injured.

Both operations, planned and executed by The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Dive Team were a complete success due to good planning and experienced divers from both The Sheriff's Department and County Lifeguards.



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