Exclusive: Fox 2 goes underwater to experience the training of a dive and rescue team

WEST ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MO (KTVI) - With the rising floodwaters come rising concerns about water safety as we approach late spring and early summer.

In a Fox Files exclusive, Andy Banker goes under the water for training with the MetroWest Fire Protection District Dive & Rescue team.

The team hopes it will help deliver a potentially life-saving message.

It’s the time of year when we’re drawn to nature and most especially drawn to the water.

Sadly, for the close to 20-member dive team, it’s also that time of year when people go under and don’t come back up.

“It’s the most helpless feeling in the world for the family.  It’s helpless for us too.  We see their emotions, we see the pain, and we fell their pain,” said Battalion Chief, Mike Digman.

He’s recovered 3 of the 14 bodies the team has recovered since the year 2000, all of them from the Meramec River near Castlewood State Park.

“We have to know our stuff,” Digman said.

Fox 2 got into the water with the divers during a recent training mission at the Lafayette High School pool in Chesterfield.

The team trains twice a month with ropes that carry communication lines.  They connect to microphones and headphones built into the masks so the search leader – or “tender” -- on shore can talk to the divers when they’re underwater.  The divers can also talk to the tender and each other.

The rope is also a guide. Searchers go through a semi-circle pattern pulling tight against the rope with the search leader holding firm on the other end.  That leader extends or retracts the line about 5 five feet after each completed sweep.  Divers then sweep back the other way.

Searching in a clear swimming pool is relatively easy for trained divers.  The team trains with masks “blacked out” to more closely match the conditions in a river search.

“When we’re in the black water like that it’ about 6 inches of visibility.  Everything is by feel,” Digman said.

It is the closest thing to the river darkness.  It’s disorienting.

“It’s confusing.  It’s claustrophobic.  Your emotion, your adrenaline’s high, but you know you have a job to do,” Digman said.

“Your only connection to the surface is that dive tender at the top,” said Captain Daniel Whatley, who has also recovered a body.  “Having a good dive tender to be able to talk to you and keep you calm under water and keep your bearings about you is about the best thing you have down there.”

Most heartbreaking is that every tragedy they've worked has been preventable.

If you're going to get into any body of water you have to know to swim, make sure you swim with a buddy, and wear a flotation device.

If you're not a strong swimmer, simply stay out of the water, they said.