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Divers can face deep trouble

August 05, 2007|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — Jim Gribble plunged into the water surrounding the Interstate 35W bridge wreckage to help families awaiting word of missing loved ones.

But that overarching intention was superseded by the rules and realities of a recovery diver, which all underscore a basic fact: Before you can recover anyone, you have to stay alive yourself.

"One of the first things you notice down there is that you can't always tell which way is up. There is no sun down there to help you. The current feels like gravity," said Gribble, 42, a diver for an area sheriff's agency who is helping the search efforts in the Mississippi River.

Gribble swam just above the mud with one arm stretched out in front of him. He sometimes saw his fingers but just as often saw no farther than his elbow.

The work is agonizingly slow, often with one diver working at a time, moving inch by inch. When communications broke down, as the fragile system often did for Gribble, there are only bubbles to show his whereabouts to teammates.

The water can be eerily still in places where the wreckage has formed dams, and it can rush powerfully where openings in the wreckage work like strainers.

On his most recent dive, Gribble saw a concrete chunk the size of a pickup truck bed shift precariously above him.

Another time, he was pushed into a hole in the wreckage by the current. He struggled desperately before grabbing a piece of debris and pulling himself out. "I couldn't outswim it," he said. "To be honest, I was scared."

But in a moment of satisfaction, his hand struck the smooth metal of a car. As he drew close, he could not make out the color.

He felt his way to the front but couldn't find a license plate. The grille said it was a Nissan. He moved back to the driver's door and saw that the windows were broken.

Rules prohibit the divers from entering the cars because of the risk of tangling their tethers, but Gribble was able to reach in and check the seat belts; none of them were locked. He felt the top of the car's interior.

"The water is warm, so if someone is not belted in, they float to the top," he said.

No one was in the Nissan.

He moved on to a pickup and two more passenger cars but found no bodies there either. He was able to take down some license plate numbers.

Thirty minutes after plunging in, he returned to the surface. He said he never learned whether the license plates were matched to the cars' passengers.

"I'm just a cog in the wheel," he said.

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