Metro West Fire to deploy new equipment to help save lives on Meramec River in Castlewood State Park

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BALLWIN, MO (KTVI) – Fox 2 & News 11 had an inside look at new tools in the effort to save lives and prevent drownings in St. Louis County, Tuesday.

Castlewood State Park is the focal point:  a spot that's become notorious for lives lost in the Meramec River.

The last time the Metro West Fire Protection District had a call to the park’s river access, it wasn’t a good one:  2 people drowned.

There’s no way to guarantee it’s never going to happen again but dive team members feel like they’ve got to try.

“It’s quite deceiving,” said Metro West Fire Chief, Michael Krause.

Just downriver from where you can safely stand and wade in the water, there’s a drop off.  The Meramec plunges to depth of about 18 feet; the current picks up, so does the danger.

In 2006, 5 young people drowned there in a single incident.  Four of them were brothers and sisters.  9 more drownings would follow, including 2 people in June, 2016, the most recent cases.

Metro West Fire Protection District rescuers have been there for all of them.

“The divers that we have -- highly trained experts at what they’re doing.  That said, it still absolutely takes an emotional toll on a first responder to be involved in that kind of an operation,” Chief Krause said.

The 17-member dive team is breaking its new, $109,000 dedicated dive truck with individualized gear for each team member paid for with a $42,000 grant from Firehouse Subs. The gear includes dry suits for cold water diving, tanks, flotation devices, and specialized dive masks with built-in speakers and a tether connecting the diver to the search conductor or “tender” on the surface.

The “tender” acts the divers’ eyes.  The tether contains a wire to transmit audio communications.

“[The “tender”] tells me where to go because we have zero to a foot of visibility underwater,” Captain Daniel Whatney said, speaking through the dive mask radio.  “Everything we do is by touch so we reach out around us and we’re able to feel objects underwater…if we can’t stay alive to do our job then we’re no good to the people we’re going to get.”

“We really want to be the most highly trained people and the best we can offer our community in the event that we need a dive rescue or a water rescue,” Krause said.

The State of Missouri was considering making changes to the river access point in the park to increase safety, Krause said.

He reiterated the call for all those interact with the river to use personal flotation devices.  People who use them do not drown.