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Local rescue divers battle the elements

An inside look at how area volunteers search for drowning victims

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Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2013 12:00 am

Every diver has a different technique. When John Mohamed slowly glides through the water, close to the ground, his hands are his eyes. Debris and silt obstruct all vision, so he can only feel for the arm, the chest, the head that may lay lifeless in the muck.

When he feels it, without hesitation, Mohamed lifts the body and secures it with his arms and legs before darting to shore.

Once on land, he tries not to look at the corpse, nor does he care to recall all the victims he’s pulled to shore in nearly 40 years as a rescue diver, now with Sacramento Drowning and Accident Rescue Team, an all-volunteer group.

“Every time you bring somebody back, you lose a little bit of yourself,” Mohamed said. “But if you become attached or distraught, you wont be long in this profession.”

The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s water rescue teams and Stockton’s dive team pulled five bodies from the San Joaquin Delta on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday after an SUV, carrying an unknown number of passengers, crashed into the water on Sunday morning. Rescuers suspended all dives and have spent the following days looking for victims from the surface, said Deputy Dave Konecny, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

Mohamed, 62, who has been diving since the 1970s, remembers countless missions like the one the Stockton rescue divers experienced this week. Technology and equipment have changed over time, but when a person is involved, the goal is always the same. And while the hope is to find a survivor, the truth is that divers are usually looking for a victim.

“We operate as if there’s always a chance,” DART spokeswoman Kelly McFarlane said. “Unfortunately, the nature of these is that they turn into recoveries.”

Mohamed is a real estate broker in Sacramento, but when his pager goes off, he’s a diver rushing to the scene of a water related emergency. As DART’s master diver, he oversees the rescue missions, instructing teams in boats, on shore and in the water.

Within three to five minutes, three divers are in the water, each tethered to someone on shore. Finally, one goes under water, mindful of the currents and conditions.

With limited visibility, those controlling the rope on shore direct divers. Mohamed said divers treat the first six hours as a rescue mission, but any longer and the chances of finding someone alive are slim.

Each diver is underwater for 20 minutes, feeling the ground for whatever items they are looking for.

“Usually we look until divers are worn out. Then we’ll come back later and keep looking,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed, like all DART members, is a volunteer who chooses to dive as a way to help the community, he said. He’s been doing it for 36 years and has seen technology and safety improve drastically during that time.

Divers now swim in dry suits instead of wet suits. Sonar radar on boats scans the water, giving rescuers an idea of the ground below. And divers weren’t tethered three decades ago.

But the goal hasn’t changed.

“A successful mission doesn’t necessarily mean we find a victim, but that everyone comes home safe,” Mohamed said.

Divers devote their time to canvassing waterways, looking for cars, evidence from a crime, people and more. But when looking for people, they rarely find survivors.

“We are always happy as team and individuals when we’re able to bring someone back successfully,” Mohamed said. “That s the best of all worlds, but it doesn’t happen that often.”

But when they drag someone to shore, they’re doing more than providing a public service, especially for the families of victims. They also provide closure.

“We can help the healing process by being successful in our mission,” Mohamed said. “We can help families grieve.”

Mohamed has no interest in seeing the families, though. He couldn’t do his job if he did.

Instead, he takes a withdrawn — and possibly to outsiders, a callous — approach. But it takes that mindset to dive into the dark, unsure what you’ll feel, time after time.

“My policy is I don’t talk to family members,” Mohamed said. “I don’t follow up with the families. I don’t read the news. That’s me. I’ve done my job.”

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

Here are a few tips from Sacramento's DART team to help stay safe in the water:

1. If you fall in a river or get caught in a current, don’t panic. Stay calm and get into a position that enables self-rescue. Float on your back with your feet up as if in a recliner chair. Be sure your feet are headed downstream with your head upstream.  Angle your body at 45 degrees towards the shore you wish to get out. Let the current help you move to the shore.  Do not expect to exit the water at the same location you entered. It is easier to walk upriver on land than it is to swim upstream and against a current. 

 2. Wear a U.S. Coast Guard certified life jacket that is specific to the type of water activity planned. Also be sure the life jacket is the appropriate size for the individual.

 3. Become familiar with the area. Look out for strainers (anything that water can flow through but people can not, i.e. fallen branches, chain link gates, grates, etc), be aware of the current, look for eddies (areas along the shore and river where water is flowing upstream) and don't overestimate swimming ability.

4. Become familiar with the signs of hypothermia and remember that the rivers in and around Sacramento tend to stay in the mid 50s to low 60s. Hypothermia sets in anytime a persons core body temperature drops below 95 degrees. The longer an individual stays in cold water, the faster hypothermia sets in.

DART is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization. For ways to support DART, visit dartsac.org.

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