Volunteer unit's members dive hoping to save lives, often settle for easing grief Middle River rescuers brave dangerous waters

July 23, 1998|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

When a Havre de Grace resident disappeared in the Susquehanna River this week, volunteer divers from the Middle River Water Rescue Unit were among the dozens statewide who responded.

The rescuers' job came to an end about 6: 30 p.m. Tuesday, when the body of 27-year-old Steve Clark was found near Havre de Grace -- the kind of somber conclusion the Middle River volunteers say they confront all too frequently.

"After retrieving a body from the water, you feel like you have done something good because it gives the family a sense of closure," said Robert Ertwine, rescue captain for the Middle River unit. "But in the same respect, you always hope that the person you are looking for turns up alive somewhere."

Tuesday's search is just one of the 35 to 50 calls the Middle River unit -- one of the most experienced in the area -- can expect to receive this year.

Established in 1953, the Middle River team is the only water rescue unit in Baltimore County. Its 16 volunteer members respond whenever there is a suspected drowning, or when someone falls into a frozen river or gets caught in a rough current.

"Everybody on the unit is a nationally certified sports diver on top of the training they receive here," said master diver Robert Pedrick, a 20-year veteran at Middle River. "When a call goes out, our pager system is activated, and people either respond to the station, or if they are close enough, they proceed directly to the scene."

The 12 months of training required before someone can join the unit includes diving under challenging conditions, including freezing cold or depths of more than 100 feet. Prospective members also learn what to do at the base of a dam or in swift currents.

Members drill once a month to keep their skills sharp.

"We try to pick out locations which are prone to drownings. That way we can become familiar with the terrain and know what to expect," said Ertwine.

They drew on all of that training Tuesday, working in "black water" -- water so dark that rescuers could not see their fingers in front of them.

Roland Mangum, a diver at Middle River for 20 years, said that in such situations a diver must depend on the other senses.

"You would be very surprised how much you can identify just by feeling with your hand when you are in the water," Mangum said.

Charles Wilkinson, chief of the Middle River Ambulance Company, of which the dive unit is a part, said that volunteers must guard against becoming emotionally involved in a search.

"This is part of the job. If you let things like death get to you, you will never make it in this business," Wilkinson said.

And while the divers at Middle River know that many of the accidents they come across are unavoidable, they say many could have been prevented.

"Whenever you go out on the water, always tell somebody where you are going and when you plan on coming home," Pedrick said.

"Also, make sure you obey the law, because normally deaths on the water occur when a boating law has been broken."

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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