Searching by feel: A window into the world of forensic diving
on October 9, 2012
A middle-aged swimmer paused at the end of the pool, between laps, and studied the man in the next lane fiddling with his goggles, who had just frog-kicked the length of the 100-foot-long pool, along the bottom, in one breath.
She had been wondering about him for weeks. His swimming habits were unique. For example, she had never seen him swim on the water’s surface. More unusual—disconcerting, actually—was what he did when he reached the deep end. He would sink to the pool’s 8-foot bottom, where he would shut his eyes, cross his arms over his chest, and recline there, motionless, for minutes at a time.
Sometimes he’d bring items down there with him: a dive mask; an underwater writing slate; a scuba diver’s computer. She’d seen him on the bottom hauling around lead weights. He is tall and muscled, with a thick chest. The woman thought perhaps he was a football player in training. She asked him.
“That’s funny,” he said, smiling. “I don’t play football. I’m slowly programming my body’s responses—so I won’t panic when I’m in the water, doing what I need to do.”
The man, 42-year-old Steven Day, was practicing for the day he might need to haul a dead body off the bottom of Lake Merritt. It’s not out of the question, given his line of work. He’s one of the newest recruits to the Alameda County Dive Team, a volunteer group that conducts underwater forensic work for the Sheriff’s Office. When a car winds up at the bottom of the Oakland Estuary, when someone throws a gun off the Berkeley dock, or when a person is missing for too long, the dive team is called out to scrape the depths in places no one sees. It’s not rescue work; it’s recovery. This is the team that deployed in San Leandro Bay the day after the Oikos University shooting in early April, looking for the shooter’s gun. It’s also the team that led the search effort for Laci Peterson’s body in San Francisco Bay in 2004. Established in 1952, it’s the oldest team of its kind in the state—perhaps the oldest in the country—and it’s voluntary. None of the members is paid for his trouble. In fact, they lose money on assignments that take time away from their jobs.
With one arm draped over the edge of the pool, Day explained some of that to the woman who’d been watching him. His exercises at the pool keep him sharp, he said. Then he bid her good morning, hoisted himself out of the water and walked through the cold to the locker room. The woman stayed and thought a moment, absorbing the new information.
“I respect the work that he does,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be in the water he’s in, looking for what I imagine he’s looking for.”
It takes a certain kind of person to volunteer for a job hunting for cadavers in the mucky beds of Alameda County’s lakes and waterways. First of all, it’s cold and dark under the water, which makes actually looking almost impossible. So the diver goes by feel alone, arms outstretched in front of him fanning along his sides—making snow angels in the mud, the team members like to say. Even if he doesn’t manage to poke his fingers against a person’s decaying body he’s liable to plow headfirst into, say, a roll of discarded barbwire or a stray oil drum—or something else.
“Whatever someone wants to get rid of and doesn’t want found—that’s what we’re for,” said Day, weaving through freeway traffic in his Jeep Wrangler one evening last fall. It’s not just dead bodies, he explained. Sometimes the objects are smaller and more volatile. “You’re not looking for tires in a swimming pool. You’re looking for handguns and sub-machine guns, or even a shell casing this big.” Day held up his hand to show a half-inch space between his thumb and index finger.
Day was running late to his team’s monthly meeting at a police compound in the hills above Dublin. He was dressed for the occasion, wearing dark blue cargo pants and a navy T-shirt bearing the Sheriff’s Office insignia over his heart. Stuck to his rear window was the red-and-white emblem of scuba diving. In the backseat was an Army-green canvas bag packed with supplies Day leaves in his car for emergency assignments. He turned onto a small thoroughfare leading through a block of squat buildings. The Sheriff’s Office’s driving course was on the right, across from the fire department’s motor pool and the county jail.
Day parked his jeep and walked into a lit door that opened into the bright auditorium where his team hosts its monthly meetings. He checked in with Rebecca Gandsey, the team’s liaison in the Sheriff’s Office, seated in the rear of the room. She handed him a plastic I.D. card and smiled.
Thirteen months before, Day overcame a fear of rejection, pulled out a file he’d been keeping on the dive team’s activities and recruitment process, and made the first call to Gandsey to learn about joining up. The prospect of joining a team of expert cadaver hunters was a perfect escape from the tedium of a nine-to-five job. The work is something of a self-guided exploration of a dark and foreign environment. “How can you get used to that?” Day says. “It’s a learning curve that will never flatten out.” Two months after the phone call, in October 2010, he was accepted to the team’s intensive 5-month training gauntlet, called Blackwater Academy. The following March, after surfacing from a practice dive off the Berkeley dock, his training officer announced his unofficial acceptance as a team member.
Tonight, the graduation was made official. “It’s Christmas for Steven,” Gandsey said, handing Day the I.D. “He’s been waiting for this a long time. It’s truly a pleasure to have you on the team.”
Day was late, and tonight was about business. “Thank you, Rebecca. You know how much this means to me.” He didn’t stop to look at the card before grabbing a seat near the back of the congregation.
Most of the team was assembled for the meeting—about 40 men in all, mostly middle-aged, some thicker in the waist than others. They all wore the same shirt that on the back read, “Alameda County Sheriff’s Office” around a single word in white capital letters: DIVER.
At the front of the room, leaning on a wooden podium, Chief Dave McMurdie was holding court. He’s trim, with a close-cropped beard and a leader’s cool and commanding poise. Reading through the litany of official business on the night’s agenda—announcements regarding personnel, next quarter’s budget and such—he paused. The second bullet point under the fifth item read 9/27 Training dive,1830 hours, Shadow Cliffs.
“I want that MAC-10 back!” McMurdie announced in a playful but condemning tone. He was talking about a mock sub-machine gun the team tossed into the Pleasanton lake a couple months before and hadn’t retrieved. Searching for fake weapons is one of many exercises the team carries out at various spots around the county—practice for the times when they’re called to look for the real thing. “It’s been rusting on the bottom of Shadow Cliffs for a while now,” McMurdie said. “I’d like it back.”
There are 44 members on the dive team—43 of them are men—whose ages range from thirties to sixties. Each has personal reasons for joining. The work is time-consuming, physically demanding and mentally jarring. Ask them, and you’ll hear about civic duty and personal responsibility—responses characteristic of military servicemen more than thrill-seekers. Pry a bit more, and the reasoning becomes less clear. After all, planting trees or volunteering as a crossing guard would be much less risky way to give back to the community.
“We don’t really talk about why we do this,” Day said. “It’s just a thing among men. It’s a hunger we all share. There are places that haven’t been explored yet and I want to go there.”
It’s dangerous work. All kinds of things can go wrong when you’re looking for nasty stuff in a foreign world without the luxury of sight or sound.
“It’s not rocket science in terms of the physical maneuvers. But mentally, that’s where it’s difficult,” said Tom West, the oldest member of the dive team. “Panic is a huge issue.”
Last November, on a body call in Alameda, one of the team members was creeping along the bottom when he realized he’d crawled into an open culvert. He had to back out—slowly. Divers have been sliced through their suits by razor wire and fishhooks, and ensnared in fishing line. (“It’s like a Chinese finger prison,” West said of webs of fishing line divers often encounter. “The more you struggle, the tighter it gets.”) A former diver for the team remembers pushing along the bottom once and suddenly realizing that he couldn’t exhale. His face was so close to the bottom that he’d pushed his regulator into the muck, clogging the vents. Years ago, a diver searching the inside of a sunken boat lost track of which way was up and had to follow the direction of his air bubbles to the exit—without being able to see them. And then there’s always the chance of a diver wrapping his fingers around the trigger of a loaded gun, and the chance that it could still fire. That has never happened, but it’s a concern when you’re using your fingertips to see. “It’s searching by Braille,” McMurdie says. “We call it being the dope on a rope.”
As volunteers, the dive team commands the G.I. Joe-esque title of Wild Cats, a call sign that sets them apart from the bulk of the roughly 2,000 local dive teams around the country. Most municipalities that want dive teams have to pay people to do the work. But not Alameda County. “It’s kind of rare,” said Butch Hendrick, founder and president of Team Lifeguard Systems, the national forensic diving standard of training. “These are guys who came up out of nowhere, with no financial support.”
Nearly every team member possesses a skill set or talent useful in emergency situations in the water before joining. Many are full-time dive instructors and commercial divers; some are hobbyist spear fishermen, abalone divers and underwater photographers. Day’s fellow recruits include a U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer and two emergency medical technicians. Apart from his perseverance and civic-mindedness, Day doesn’t fit the team’s member profile. He’s not from the Bay Area, as are most of the members, or even the West Coast; he’s from Tennessee. Unlike the stable career men and retired guys who volunteer for the team, Day bounces between jobs teaching school and counseling troubled youths. He’s the team’s only black member, which sets him apart in a room of white men in blue uniforms. And he wasn’t a skilled waterman before he joined.
In fact, 11 years ago, Day didn’t know how to swim. Still true—he started learning in 2001.
“I remember when I first called to find out about the team, my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest,” Day said. “I ended up saying something silly like, ‘There’s not a lot of color on that team and I’d like to try out.’”
It’s hard for Day to articulate his reasons for pursuing the team. He says he’s always been fascinated with crime and death, so much so that he completed two years of law school, and he keeps a running list of “unusual deaths” he reads about in a file on his computer. Or maybe it’s because his instincts lead him naturally to risky activities. Apart from the dive team, he plays on a men’s rugby team. Next on his list of hobbies to explore are motorcycle riding and archery. “Maybe I just read too many Navy Seal books,” Day jokes. When you press him for an answer, he’ll relinquish details of a past riddled with setbacks that compelled him to channel his frustrations first into swimming and then into the team’s rigorous training program. It begins with a traumatic childhood experience.
Day grew up in land-locked Memphis, near the Mississippi River but far from lakes and the beach. “The closest we saw was a weed-choked, muddy area where catfish would spawn,” Day says. The kids he grew up with splashed in the community pool on hot summer days, but never swam. Swimming, like skiing and even baseball, was considered a “white people sport,” Day says. His black friends didn’t venture into the pool past where they could safely stand. Neither did Day’s adult friends in Oakland. Later, once he knew how, he’d invite them to come swim with him. “They’d laugh,” he says. “Like, ‘Yo, Steve, what are you wasting your time with all that swimming for?’” Day says the stereotype about black people’s collective aversion to swimming, from his experience, “simply happens to be true.”
But for Day, the hurdles were more than cultural.
One hot summer day, in 1981, when he was between fifth and sixth grade, Day and a couple of his buddies were strolling around a community pool in their neighborhood, checking out older girls in bikinis. The pool was the place to be for kids looking to hang out and beat the heat. Then something happened that would keep Day away from the water for the next 20 years. He was walking near the deep end when, out of nowhere, his older, stronger brother blindsided him and heaved him into the water.
“The first thing I realized was that I’d been thrown. Next thing I know, I’m gasping and hacking and coughing underwater,” Day recalls. His buddies were tossed in too. None of them could swim. “We were like a daisy chain of newborns drowning,” he says. They struggled to the side of the pool and managed to pull themselves out. But now everyone, including the girls in bikinis, knew he couldn’t swim. “After that, I didn’t want anything to do with swimming pools.” Even pool parties in college seemed daunting.
Day arrived in the Bay Area in 1996 as part of his work for Teach For America, the national nonprofit that sends aspiring educators to the lowest-performing schools, often located in some of the country’s toughest neighborhoods. The program is designed to drop young idealists with strong work ethics and little or no experience into the deep end of the country’s public education system. Day’s assignment put him at Joaquin Miller Elementary School in East Oakland.
But after a few years he’d had his fill and in 2001, Day enrolled in night school to get a law degree. (Law school is “another one of those white things” most black people in Memphis weren’t expected to do, Day says.) That summer, between his first and second years in the program, was, Day puts it, “tumultuous.” He broke up with girlfriend of six years but had to stick out living with her for months until she found a new place. During the day, he ran papers as an extern at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco. He bought expensive shoes and suits he couldn’t really afford for the job. More than once he fell asleep in them, on his couch, after long, stressful days.
It was one of those nights, well after midnight, after he had passed out on his couch in work attire, when Day took his first steps in a new direction.
The apartment where he was living is located on a side street, off MacArthur Boulevard, that dead-ends at Dimond Canyon Park, a 12-acre green space marking the point where Oakland becomes hilly. The park is replete with oak and redwood trees, a year-round creek, hiking trails, tennis courts, picnic areas and a stand-alone public swimming pool guarded by a tall iron gate. The park entrance is about 150 paces from Day’s old apartment; another 200 paces straight in takes you to the pool. On the way, you pass through a small redwood grove, past a playground, to a raised piece of land at the base of a hill, surrounded first by a two-foot-tall barrier of stacked flagstone and then the iron gate. It’s a long walk when you’re asleep.
“I remember when I hit this thing thinking, ‘Where the fuck am I?’” Day said, standing by the pool one evening in October, shining a dive light on the barrier.
Here’s his account of what happened that night in 2001. In an uncharacteristic bout of sleepwalking, Day had made his way from his apartment into the park, unconsciously, coming to only when his knees collided with the flagstone barrier. The first thing he noticed was a faint blue light undulating against the night fog above the pool.
“It was at that moment that it all came back and hit me at once,” Day said. “I was sick and tired of not being able to swim. The very next day I jumped into that very swimming pool. The goal was not to teach myself to swim but to prevent myself from drowning.”
He bought a day planner at a dollar store to track his progress. He learned not to drown by throwing himself into the deep end over and over again and dog-paddling his way to the edge. He taught himself to swim watching others swim laps, then mimicking their motions and working out the kinks as he progressed. He was visiting the pool six or seven days a week, multiple times a day, on top of an 80-hour work schedule. The day planner became a diary of his relationship with the water. Swimming was becoming a kind of escape. He started reading books written by Navy Seals. Then he took some of that military mindset to the pool. He would tilt his head back underwater, deliberately inviting the water to climb deep into his nostrils until it felt like it was burning his brain.
“I used to flood that burning feeling out,” Day said. “I became totally comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the water.
He practiced holding his breath at work. Sometimes in the middle of the day, pool water would dislodge itself from inside Day’s head and pour out his nose. He suffered deep muscle pulls. But he felt clearer than ever. Swimming was helping him find himself. In a personal essay Day submitted as part of a job application for legal work, he wrote that the process of learning to swim as an adult has “provided the basic ingredients or fuel that I use when confronted with seemingly difficult or impassable situations” and “has had a continuous and profound impact in many areas of my life.” He no longer needed law school to feel productive, so he dropped out. If he was going to continue to work this hard, he decided, he wanted to work for himself.
“I was in dreamland working for the attorney’s office,” Day said, standing by the Dimond Park pool. He stared through the iron gate to the water’s surface. “This was the real challenge.”
At his first day job after leaving law school Day worked with troubled adolescents at a now-defunct Oakland clinic for juvenile delinquents called the Potter’s House. He lobbied to get the house to fund YMCA swim passes for the teens. “I thought, if I can teach these kids how to swim competitively, that there is a physical and psychological benefit in that, maybe they use that to stay off the streets,” Day said. But the kids didn’t stay at the house long enough for Day’s mentorship to make more than an impression. Meanwhile, his obsession with pushing himself had grown too big for the pool. He sought scuba lessons.
Steele’s Discount Scuba shop, on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland, looks like it’s closed. The display windows in front are empty and the wooden sign hanging above the storefront—barely recognizable as a scuba diver—is weather-worn and graffitied. Inside, it’s a cluttered mess. Air tanks are clustered in the middle of the shop, some tipped on their sides. Equipment, some of it antiquated, some of it brand new, is strewn around the room, in piles and on countertops. Nothing appears to be in its proper place. Behind the counter is an old poster advertisement for the Alameda County Dive Team. Jim Steele, the shop owner, has been diving for more than 50 years and served on the team in the 1970s. He’s worked with team members both current and former, and he taught Day how to dive.
“Dive instructors think they know everything about diving,” said Steele, seated inside the shop. “I thought I knew everything. Nope!”
The tenets of the team—navigate blindly, search by feel and communicate via rope line—are well outside the purview of recreational and even commercial scuba diving. The cornerstone of traditional diving is a principle taught as “look only, touch nothing.” You go under to observe nature; you leave no trace. The team’s job is diametrically opposed to that approach. You search by feel.
Not everyone was made for it, Steele says. “You have to be comfortable under the water when they turn the lights out.”
In 2008, Day was treading water, as it were, as a teacher and counselor when a friend offered to get him a job at the Castlemont Community of Small Schools. But a few months after starting the job, Day found out his employment contract wouldn’t be renewed, and that he’d be out of work for the second time in four years. He says he asked himself, “Steven, what would you do if you never needed another dime?” The answer: “I’d be an underwater archaeologist.” The rush of diving and the prospect of exploring an alien environment, in spite of the danger or perhaps because of it, made the dive team all the more appealing, Day says. “The learning curve will never flatten out.”
Here’s an example. One means of acclimating to the black water environment is the “cutting box” exercise. You start by stretching duct tape over your dive mask, so you can’t see through it. There’s a milk crate on the bottom of a 10-foot-deep pool, with lengths of various strings and cords tied and tangled to it. Your job is to find one loose end of each kind of cord, cut a length long enough to knot, then tie them in a daisy chain to your buoyancy compensator (the inflatable vest divers wear to maintain depth). You do this while wearing thick neoprene gloves. “We do it until it’s all just muscle memory,” McMurdie says. “We want to make sure it’s pure reflex.”
The exercise, in part, tests the ability of a diver to maintain focus for an extended period of time while deprived of his senses. After about 20 minutes crawling through black water, members say, concentration begins to blur and fade. One dive team member put it this way: “Everybody’s got an edge, and everyone’s edge is different.”
By now, Day has spent years on the bottom of the swimming pool cultivating his edge. He’s practicing to be the team’s priority diver on emergency assignments. “I want to be at the tip of the spear,” he says.
To an average scuba diver, the idea of groping around on the bottom of a waterway in Oakland is wholly new and somewhat alarming. But I figured I’d try it myself, given what team members say about how nobody—not even experienced scuba divers—has a clue about what their job is really like.
I met John Lathsbury, a member of Day’s dive team, at the Alameda Marina one morning last November for a crash course in forensic diving. Standing on a small dock just off the marina parking lot, we considered the water we were about to jump into: a gray-green mixture separating Oakland from Alameda. Lathsbury looked up at the overcast sky, which had just begun drizzling rain. Then he looked down, leaning his upper body until his eyes looked directly below, onto the opaque surface.
“They say there’s no bottom in the Alameda Estuary—the water just gets thicker,” Lathsbury said.
A slab of white cement behind us read, in bold letters legible from 50 feet: “Hazardous Waters—No Swimming, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.” On the other side of the dock was a boat ramp that tapers into the water. Six years ago, if you were driving down Grand Street at night and you didn’t know the area, you might accidentally follow the street straight down the boat ramp and into the estuary. In fact, that’s what happened in 2005 to a 55-year-old doctor from San Jose. The team discovered her car upside-down, with her body inside, a month and a half after the incident and hauled them both to shore. In response, the county installed a small median that guides drivers away from the boat ramp and into the parking lot.
A man pulled up in a silver car as Lathsbury and I were gearing up in the parking lot. He hollered out his passenger window, asking if we were preparing to clean a boat hull.
“Nope, we’re just about to do a little training exercise, that’s all,” Lathsbury said.
“In this water? You won’t be able to see anything,” the man replied.
“That’s the idea,” Lathsbury said.
The man’s brow furrowed, and he nodded and drove away. Lathsbury and I reviewed line signals.
One tug: Are you okay? One tug back: I’m okay. Three tugs: Search right.
Four tugs: Search left. 3-3-3: Surface, now! Six tugs: I’m in trouble!
We hopped into the water. A diver friend of Lathsbury’s knelt on the dock and clipped the rope to my vest before Lathsbury and I descended. As we sank, green water closed out the luminescent gray sky above, encapsulating us in a swampy haze. It wasn’t black water, but my visibility was limited to what was directly in front of my mask. I lay on my stomach on the bottom, about 12 feet down, and attempted a circle pattern search—hunting for anything I could find. The idea is to explore the bottom, one centimeter at a time, with your fingertips.
Brushing a hand into the mucky sediment produced a small explosion of gray that didn’t settle back down. It was like swimming in a paint can. My limbs moved as swiftly as they would in a swimming pool, but the fog of sediment made the water seem thick and impenetrable. My senses struggled to perceive depth, leaving my mind oscillating between sensations of claustrophobia and infinity. Some of the divers say it’s easier to just close your eyes, so I did.
Slowly, my brain redirected my senses to my hands, and my arms fanned out in front of me. My fingers wrapped around something solid, and dislodged it. Was it a rock, a shell or some human artifact? I pulled it close to my mask to see it. Then closer. Then it was touching the lens of my mask but still somehow shrouded. It’s a bit unnerving to have working eyes that can’t see what’s in front of them. I set it back down and crawled forward.
After about 15 minutes, I felt a set of 3-3-3 tugs on my vest: Time to surface. I came up disoriented, intending to face the dock but with my back to it instead. McMurdie’s words were bouncing around in my head: “After about 15 minutes, you start to lose it.”
“Ask him what the bottom terrain is like,” Dan McCormick orders Justin, the communications man wearing a radio headset. “Is it weedy?”
Justin radios the inquiry to the diver in the water, Dan Longnecker, then relays his response. “He says ‘Thick vegetation,’” Justin says. Day jots it down on a clipboard. He is profiling divers in the water during tonight’s exercise.
A moment later, Longnecker’s line tender felt three quick successions of four tugs—one of the team’s emergency signals. The end of the rope he’s holding stretches about 60 feet off the dock he’s standing on and disappears below the surface of a dark lake at Shadow Cliffs Regional Recreation Area, a park in the hills east of downtown Pleasanton. It’s one of several spots where the team occasionally trains. Tonight, divers are looking for the mock sub-machine gun McMurdie chastised the team about at the meeting earlier that month—the one the team hasn’t retrieved. The hunk of welded metal rests about 70 feet from the water’s edge, the men think, and the longer it remains, the more challenging it becomes to find and extract it. The muddy lakebed is fraught with long grass and other obstructions, like stray oil drums, that can distract a diver skulking along the bottom. In the event a diver gets caught up, each carries a pair of shears on each of his shoulders and a knife sheathed in the center of his chest.
The line tender announces the emergency to the men on the dock, who immediately stop what they’re doing and regroup. Day’s estimation put the diver’s depth at about 12 feet and his breathing frequency at eight breaths per minute, judging by the intervals of bubbles that emerge on the water’s surface. Justin radios to Longnecker, the man in the water, who McMurdie calls “The Magnet” due to his prowess for locating guns. Longnecker says he’s caught in the long grass and can’t untangle his fins. He’s been in the water longer than usual, more than 20 minutes, and his air might be running low.
The men are overtaken by a sense of urgency. Scotty, who just climbed out of the water from a dive, grabs his mask and hops back in to go after Longnecker. He kicks out on the surface about halfway then submerges. All eyes are on the water. It’s the first quiet since the training started, and the sun cast its last light of the day minutes earlier. Justin radios to Scott and Longnecker for a report, but no one is answering—just short bursts of static. A minute passes. Then another. Then a spot of lake in the area beyond the rope begins to bubble. Two masked heads pop up and begin a slow drift toward the dock. Hands reach out of the water and pull the divers’ masks up on their heads, opening up the only sound on the water. It’s laughter.
Day helps haul the divers out of the water and everyone trudges back to the parking lot, where a floodlight presides over an open trailer. The divers drop their gear on a plastic tarp and peel themselves out of their wetsuits. While they’re dressing, Chad Noble, the acting superior officer, recounts the night’s exercise. It turns out Longnecker faked his entanglement.
“It was a test,” Chad announces. The team seems relieved at the news. But Chad isn’t satisfied with the team’s overall performance. “We need a speedier deployment. You guys took 30 minutes from when we started setting up. I’d like to get it down to 10.”
Wending out of the park in his Jeep, Day contemplates the impact of a year of feeling around underwater for guns and dead bodies. It has changed his perception of the Bay Area’s waterways. “I think about how the contour of the bottom is shaped now,” he says. “I think, ‘What’s under there?’” His stream of consciousness meanders into thoughts about diving in the dark.
“The way it works when you’re down there is your eyes try to fixate on something to get a point of reference, but that’s actually counterproductive,” he says. “You have to consciously abandon all your natural tendencies and everything they teach you in scuba.”
“It’s like taking a break. I have a bunch of fears but getting under the water, like, allows me to take that one big breath I’ve been waiting for,” he says. “I think I feel the most solace in the dark.”
Text and photos by Gregory Thomas.
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