Police beat all wet in N.Y.

State Police unit specializes in making underwater recoveries

October 27, 2002|By Brendan Lyons | Brendan Lyons,ALBANY TIMES UNION

BOLTON, N.Y. - The sonar ping ricocheted off the dead man's body and rang in the ear of the New York State Police scuba diver.

At 140 feet below the surface of Lake George, Trooper Chuck Ford Sr. was about to make the deepest recovery of a body on record for the 68-year-old State Police Scuba Unit.

"I was on the guy in six minutes," Ford, a longtime trooper from central New York, said as he recounted the Sept. 1 recovery.

Recovering the bodies of people killed in accidents or by foul play is only one responsibility of a unit called on in high-profile missions. Over the past three decades, as police agencies across the nation have sought to improve tactics, officers who specialize in areas such as scuba diving are being summoned to the front lines.

When terrorists flew jetliners into the World Trade Center, State Police senior diver Robert Caridi and several others in the 65-member unit, which has troopers across the state, huddled around a television watching the events unfold. Within minutes, they loaded their gear and drove to headquarters in Albany, preparing for their inevitable deployment to Manhattan.

On Sept. 11, 2001, as Navy ships raced toward New York City, Caridi and fellow State Police divers eased into New York City's inky rivers to check bridges, tunnels, waterfront helipads and piers for bombs.

Ocean crash

Caridi, a Vietnam War-era veteran who helps train State Police divers, also was among the unit's members called into action in 1996 to help recover 230 bodies from the Atlantic Ocean following the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800.

The recovery mission off Long Island was one of the more challenging for the divers, who were limited by Navy standards to one dive a day and had to deal with curious sharks drawn by the underwater carnage.

Trooper Joe Benzinger, who works out of Troop K in Poughkeepsie, said many of the unit's missions involve low-profile cases in which they scour creeks and rivers for missing persons or spend hours searching lake bottoms for murder weapons that aren't there.

Benzinger said drivers on the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge over the Hudson River in Dutchess County frantically called 911 after seeing a group of young people run toward a man who leapt from the side of the towering span. It turned out the jumper was a parachuting thrill-seeker and the mob running toward him were friends.

In another case, Benzinger and other divers probed the depths of a flooded mine shaft looking for two people who were supposed to be wrapped in carpet after their slayings.

`Not in nice water'

"Most of our diving is not in nice water," said Benzinger, a trooper for 13 years.

The State Police Scuba Unit is on call 24 hours a day and regularly gives support to local police agencies. Last year, the unit handled 151 missions, conducted 841 dives and recovered 15 bodies and numerous pieces of evidence used in criminal cases.

Troopers who join the unit face grueling physical-stamina and water-agility tests just to apply for the seven-week training course, which has a dropout rate of about 30 percent.

Beth Burchill, a trooper from central New York, said it was her love of water, rather than just the badge, that drove her to become a trooper almost 14 years ago. In 1986, she was a college student working at the State Fair in Syracuse when she came upon a State Police display. She saw a photograph of a police diver that she still remembers and that changed her life.

"I always had this passion for water," said Burchill, the only female member of the unit. "Before I even became a police officer I wanted to be a police diver."

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