Drowning recovery efforts spark dive-team debate
July 9, 2015
The tragic drowning of Chris Mullinex in Lake Granby over the 4th of July holiday weekend has brought to the forefront a discussion about body recovery dive teams and why Grand County does not have its own.
Friday afternoon, July 3, Christopher Mullinex of Grand Lake disappeared beneath the surface of Lake Granby and did not resurface. Within a few minutes calls were made to Grand County dispatch informing them of the incident. Friday afternoon local authorities began searching for Mullinex's body, though at the time he was still officially considered a missing person.
Early reports from eyewitnesses indicated multiple different locations where they believed Mullinex had last been seen. After initial passes with SONAR equipment did not yield results, the search area was widened. Three boats began working through the designated search area in a grid pattern.
Recovery efforts for his body continued Saturday, July 4, with SONAR boats from both local law enforcement and private individuals aiding in the search. On Sunday, private individuals searching the area discovered what they believed to be Mullinex's body beneath the surface of the water. A dive team from Summit County was called to the reservoir and began actively searching for Mullinex's, though efforts Sunday proved unsuccessful.
On Monday morning, various law enforcement authorities and private individuals and an additional SONAR boat from Summit Water Dive Team continued to search for the body. Shortly after 1 p.m. Monday divers were able to recover Mullinex's body. Recovery efforts were hampered throughout the weekend by occasionally rough conditions on the lake that made the SONAR equipment malfunction.
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The technically challenging process of finding and recovering drowned bodies is time consuming and relies entirely on SONAR detection before divers are sent down to retrieve a body. Recovery divers do not go down and swim in water and search for bodies; rather, they are used to bring the bodies back to the surface after they have been located.
There are multiple reasons the divers are not used to locate bodies but the two primary reasons are lack of visibility at depth within the lake and the extreme pressurization effects of scuba diving in deep water at over 8,000 feet above sea level. The divers require significant time to travel from the surface of the water to the bottom of the lake and back again. They must move slowly to prevent decompression sickness, more commonly known as "the bends." The risk of decompression sickness is much worse when scuba diving at 8,000 feet than at sea level.
The lack of visibility in the water, approximately one foot at the depths the divers were searching, also means the divers can easily hit the bottom of the lake accidentally, stirring up silt and decreasing the already precious minutes available for them to work under the water.
Lt. Dan Mayer with the Grand County Sheriff's Department explained the divers were operating with 40 minutes worth of air in their tanks, requiring 10 minutes of air to make their way down to the bottom of the lake and 10 minutes to come back up with 10 minutes to work on the bottom and an additional 10 minutes worth of oxygen available for emergencies.
After SONAR boats find what they believe to be a body in a recovery effort, divers are sent down to verify. After divers verify they have found the body recovery efforts turn to placing a marker cage in the water beside the body. The marker cage is attached to a buoy that sits on the water's surface over the body. The buoy serves as a location marker, guiding the divers down to exactly where the body is located. Because the boats drift on the surface of the water it typically takes several readjustments to place the buoy in the exact proper location.
Lt. Mayer explained that after locating Mullinex's body in the lake, rescuers had to reposition the buoy multiple times before the divers were ready to bring his body up. Transporting the body to the surface is done by the divers themselves; the divers physically hold the body and are pulled to the surface by ropes they also hold onto. Before a body is finally removed from the water it is placed in a body bag, while still completely submerged, to ease the transition out of the water and onto a boat.
Why no divers?
Mullinex's drowning and the three-day body recovery process have sparked debate as to why Grand County, with such a significant number of large bodies of water, does not have either boat patrols or a dive team.
"We definitely would like to see a boat patrol out on the lakes," said Lt. Mayer. "Our fear is a boat accident or a capsized boat where people are becoming hypothermic. We can help them and prevent them from drowning."
Mayer explained that funding was the primary reason the county does not have either a boat patrol or a dive team.
"A boat patrol unit is very expensive.," Mayer said. "The Sheriff's Office used to have one. We don't know what happened to it. We weren't the ones working here at that time."
Lt. Mayer explained that earlier in the summer officials from the Sheriff's office and representatives from EMS and Grand County Search and rescue met to discuss the possibility of creating water rescue resources for the county, though those discussions focused primarily on rescue operations and not body recovery efforts or the creation of a dive team.
Mayer and Undersheriff Wayne Schaffer have begun looking into the federal government's 1033 program, which provides federal equipment to local law enforcement agencies at little or no cost, to acquire a boat for the department.
Representatives from the Sheriffs Office indicated they felt the funds needed to create and maintain a dive team within the county would be better utilized for other life-saving efforts. They also indicated the close proximity of the Summit County Dive Team was a factor in their consideration.
Grand County did have a dive team, over a decade ago, though it was disbanded during the middle of the last decade. Mike Long with the Grand Lake Fire Protection District was just starting his new job as chief in 2003 when the dive team came under his purview. Previously the county operated the team. Long said he did not know the specific reasons the county had chosen not to continue funding the team.
"When I arrived in 2003 we looked at all aspects of our operation," said Long. "To my recollection to fund the team was approximately 10 percent of our budget." Long further explained that the dive team accounted for less than one one-hundredth of a percent of the department's overall service calls. "There was a call on average every few years," he said.
Prior to Mullinex the last person to drown in Lake Granby was Jamey Sorensen, 40, of Centennial, who died in 2006 after falling from a motorboat. The recovery of his body was also conducted by the Summit County Dive Team and took multiple days.
Chief Long explained that around 2004 his department decided to disband the dive team.
"When we decided it wasn't the best use of our funds, all the equipment became property of the fire department."
Long explained the equipment for the team went to different places. A number of items, including an inflatable zodiac boat, were given to the Grand County Sheriff's Office. Long said his department also sold the 16-foot dive boat to the Sheriff's Office. Other items were given to fire departments within the county.
"We sold the bulk of the equipment to the Summit County Dive Team," Long said. The funds from the equipment sales, which Long estimated at approximately $10,000, went into the Grand Lake Fire Protection District's general fund.
"We retained a few of those pieces of equipment," said Long, including a dry suit and an exposure suit that can be used for surface rescues on ice.
"The items we have for surface rescue are still in service. But the underwater items were sold or donated. We still do surface rescue with our fire boat and shore based swift water rescues, but underwater recovery doesn't make sense for us to do at the local fire district level, especially with a quality team less than two hours away."
Throughout the interviews for this story representatives from the Grand County Sheriff's Office and the Grand Lake Fire Department repeatedly expressed their sympathies for the Mullinex family and their tragic loss.