Marine Rescue Is Their Specialty

Chris Bengivengo describes the difficulties in being part of a dive rescue team.


Meet The St. Petersburg Fire Department Divers On a cold January evening, the dive unit of the St. Petersburg, FL, Fire Department settled into the day room of Fire Station 5, hoping the balance of the shift would be uneventful. Then, like a child mocking its mother, the bell on the wall...


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Meet The St. Petersburg Fire Department Divers

On a cold January evening, the dive unit of the St. Petersburg, FL, Fire Department settled into the day room of Fire Station 5, hoping the balance of the shift would be uneventful. Then, like a child mocking its mother, the bell on the wall rang, shattering the divers’ hopes — the team was being dispatched for a water rescue.

En route to the call, the team was advised that two ships had collided while entering the Port of Tampa near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge; one was reported overturned.

At approximately 8 P.M. on Jan. 28, 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn collided with the 600-foot-oil tanker Capricorn while entering the Port of Tampa. The collision ripped a gash into the side of the Blackthorn’s hull, causing it to immediately capsize and sink to the bottom. There were 50 people aboard. Members of the St. Petersburg Fire Department marine rescue unit were among the first called to assist in the rescue effort.

“When we arrived on scene, all you could see was a massive bubble of air coming to the surface where the ship went down,” said Deputy Chief Gerard Chalmers, the unit’s dive master and a certified dive instructor. “It appeared as if the surface of the water was boiling.”

Because the possibility of trapped survivors was high, the team chose to dive on the site despite unfavorable conditions. Team members worked through the night, fighting strong currents, cold water and poor visibility, and made repeated dives on the wreck below. By the time the incident was over, 27 Coast Guard seamen were rescued from the surface but 23 of their shipmates had died, trapped inside the ship below.

Such an event can tax the training and resources of even the most experienced dive team. On that night, members of the St. Petersburg Fire Department assisted in saving many lives that might have been lost without their services. What the team learned in the process could never be simulated in a training exercise.

That experience proved invaluable when only three months later, in a heavy rainstorm, the 608-foot freighter Summit Venture collided with the support structure of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The bridge broke, and 35 people — some passengers on a bus, others still sitting in their vehicles — fell 175 feet to the water below. In that incident, only one person survived.

Of the lessons learned in both incidents, the most important was that organization and the setting of immediate priorities are paramount to a successful rescue operation. Having a plan and a proper incident command structure in place can make the difference in coping with calls of this magnitude.

“The number-one priority, after ensuring the safety of your personnel, is rescuing the victims on the surface of the water,” said Chalmers, who has 30 years of diving experience, 22 of them as a public safety diver. “These are your most viable victims and usually have the greatest chance of survival.”

Most victims trapped below the surface must be reached within four minutes to be rescued; after that, they’ve probably drowned. Exceptions to the four-minute rule are victims trapped in sealed, watertight compartments or when the temperature is below 70 degrees. In cold- water incidents, the window for rescuing victims can be extended to as much as an hour.

Rescuing victims from submerged vehicles can be an area where fire departments feel compelled to act, and the public has come to expect intervention. The truth is, however, that unless victims can be reached within the first few minutes of entering the water, their chance of survival is small. In research compiled by the STAR project (Submerged Transportation Accident Report) conducted by Michigan State University and the Michigan State Police, some interesting facts were revealed.

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