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U.S. Navy Captain breaks down dive team's underwater work

Posted at 6:21 PM, Apr 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-08 19:22:13-04

DUNDALK, Md. — As cranes carry shipping containers from the top of the Dali to floating barges, divers are working on the bottom of the Patapsco River preparing pieces of wreckage to get lifted out of the water.

"Right now they're doing some cuts. They're also doing some bucket dredging to allow us to get down into the mudline where some of the heavier debris has sunk into the mudline. So that allows us to see - is it still connected? Do we to make cuts? And then we're setting up all the equipment for the larger cutting operation to try to create the pieces that we can rig and then lift it out," U.S. Navy Captain Sal Suarez, Supervisor of Diving & Salvage, said.

Captain Suarez is leading the underwater effort here. He's in charge of a team of 20 divers, all working on emergency contracts.

"They do it for a living. So they're well-accustomed to some of the higher currents they're seeing. At some point if the current is too high, they'll have to back out of the water if it's unsafe. But any time they don't feel safe, they can call the audible and say hey, things down on the bottom are not what we expected and they can get pulled out of the water."

The initial surveying and mapping of the wreckage on the river bottom is complete.

"And that allowed us to really understand how bad it was down there,” Captain Suarez said. “So parts of the roadway, the concrete, in some cases it was above the top truss of the bridge instead of, where it was a hanging roadway before. In some of the slow-motion video of the event, we’ve kind of gone back over to try to assess, how much can we pull from that to further inform what we think we’ll see on the bottom?"

Sonar imaging equipment provided a 3D view, which the dive team then went down and verified. Now, it's time to get all that debris out. In water this dark and murky, you need to rely on touch, rather than sight. But above the water, there's another set of eyes.

"Once they start moving out, you steer them towards where you want them. They should feel out, you kind of tell them - reach out, you should feel where the project is," Captain Suarez said.

The cuts aren't made directly by the divers. Instead, crane barges lower the equipment down; a diver checks to make sure it's in the right place, then they come back up. After the cut is made, a diver goes back down to make sure it was successful. They use either hydraulic shears - which Captain Suarez compared to "giant scissors," or a diamond wire saw.

“We weren’t quite sure the state of all the wreckage on the bottom. So if some of the loading on those pieces left it in kind of a dynamic state, so when you make a cut, it could spring. […] That’s why we use these devices to do the cuts instead of actual burning through with torches or other methods to cut through it because it removes the diver from the equation,” Captain Suarez said.

There's a high level of trust needed for this job. The divers are relying on someone above the water to guide them through the wreckage.

The biggest risk?

"Probably trapped diver. With all the debris down there," Captain Suarez said.

While they're navigating that debris through virtual darkness, the divers know at any moment they could come across one of the three victims who haven't been found yet.

A third victim was found on Friday - Maynor Yasir Suazo-Sandoval.

"Unfortunately, you just come upon it. If you suspect that you've found human remains, then they pull out and call the state troopers. They're on standby to respond," he said.

When asked to compare this project to others he's done in the past, Captain Suarez said: “Maybe some of the hurricane support we did for channel clearance operations, moving boats and things from the waterways. Similar but nowhere near the level of scope here of the type of heavy material and everything. It’s pretty unique."

Captain Suarez says the weather has proved to be the biggest obstacle so far.

“Yesterday [Sunday] I think was some of the best progress to date on site. And it was mostly because we had a few days to come up with a good plan when the weather window hit or opened, so we’re expecting to really make good progress this week.”