Divers at Keys Artificial Reef Practice for Ship Accidents

The Associated Press
Jan 25, 2003

KEY LARGO, Fla. (AP) - A group of police and fire rescue divers completed a series of courses and drills Saturday designed to increase their chances of saving survivors of ship accidents.
Part of the two-day program involved a simulated rescue on the artificial reef Spiegel Grove, a retired Navy ship deliberately sunk last May, about six miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

During scuttle operations, the 510-foot ship prematurely sunk and rolled over leaving the bow, buoyed by an air pocket, protruding above the sea. Subsequent salvage efforts put the ship on its side, but air pockets still exist in different compartments.

"We ran the drill on the Spiegel Grove to focus on a particular point of a rescue scenario which involves victims who will undoubtedly be left conscious within air pockets inside a ship that capsizes," Max Walchuk, who designed the course under a grant from the National Foundation for Public Safety.

About 30 members of the National Academy of Police Divers, based in Coral Gables, and the Chicago Fire Department were involved in the exercise, Walchuk said.

Trainees practiced dropping from a helicopter and arriving at the site by boat. They carried multiple lights, underwater scooters, slates on which to scribble and spare air tanks. One team rescued a mock victim who swam ahead of them deep inside the wreck, located an air pocket and stayed there with his dive light off until they found him.

Walchuk said the Spiegel Grove made an ideal training site because it has 11 decks and lies on its side in 130 feet of water.

As a commander with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department and a rescue diver with the Chicago Fire Department, Walchuk understand needs for underwater mass rescue training.

He traveled to Africa last September shortly after a Senegalese ferry with at least 1,500 passengers aboard, capsized offshore the west coast of Gambia. All but 64 died.

"People were alive on that ship (in air pockets) for 24 hours and the teams were ill-prepared to get them out," said Walchuk, who assisted government officials with body recovery efforts