Plunging into the deep and unknown, in hopes of discovering some answers

  • Article by: Dee DePass
  • Star Tribune
  • August 5, 2007 - 11:00 PM

St. Croix, Wis., rescue diver Adam Wojciehowski and 14 teammates bolted from Hudson, Wis., at 4:45 a.m. Saturday to begin a 16-hour day in Minneapolis. They would spend much of it under water, fighting the mighty Mississippi while diving for victims, cars, license plates and other submerged items that might help identify victims of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge.

While two team members worked security for President Bush's visit, Wojciehowski and the rest scampered onto a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers barge that would assist Hennepin and Dakota County divers already wrestling to get a van out of the river. The barge swept into the lock and dam, waited for the water level to drop and proceeded toward the watery graveyard where five people died and eight are missing.

"When the lock doors finally opened, there was just a silence," Wojciehowski said. "Every single person on our team said, 'Oh my lord.' What carnage there was. ... It's just so hard to take in."

And harder still to navigate it.

The divers shimmied inside dry suits and clinked on 20-pound weight belts and 40-pound tanks. Jay Penfield, the most experienced diver on the St. Croix EMS Rescue Team, took the first leap into the murky mess. He couldn't see 12 inches from his face.

One by one, for 45 minutes each, a lone tethered diver hung onto mangled rebar, darted into submerged cars and felt for purses, license plates and people amid the debris.

Soon it was Wojciehowski's turn.

"This dive site was a little unusual. The bridge concrete that fell in didn't touch the bottom of the river all the way. So [it] created a big funnel underneath the actual collapsed structure. ... The closer you got to collapsed structure, the current rushed in under. It could suck you right in under."

Wojciehowski, 29, crawled on his belly along the bottom of the blackened river, skirting by chunks of fiberglass, car molding, electrical cable and downed lampposts.

"To keep your balance you are using your hands and crawling in and crawling around rebar, and twisted metal and huge chunks of concrete," he said. "Sometimes, there were huge outcroppings of concrete sitting above your head and you don't realize it."

Preparation was key. The team from Wisconsin trained for two days for this very moment. Every diver had two back-up divers, fully suited and ready to plunge into the 82-degree temperatures that quickly exhausted struggling divers.

Good thing.

Midway through the day's dive, as the St. Croix team took turns diving, resting and eating donated burritos and sub sandwiches, Hennepin and Dakota County dive teams wrestled with a van 50 yards away. Suddenly "some deputies came over to our barge and said we have someone entangled and we need some extra air.' " Wojciehowski said. "In two minutes, we had two divers, two paramedics and two extra bottles of air with regulators going to that location where the van was. It was maybe 50 yards away."

The tense seconds ticked on as divers watched with bated breath.

The tangled diver got free. "I saw him come to the surface," Wojciehowski said. "We all let out a silent sigh of relief that the diver was able to get out."

Battling the current, 82-degree water in hot dry suits and sharp twisted metal took its toll. By 5 p.m., the exhausted team members were out of the water, out of their dry suits and headed back through the lock and dam.

"I did not get home until about 9:00," Wojciehowski said. After a shower, a porterhouse steak, a Coke and a nice cigar, "I slept for about 10 or 11 hours," he said.

Asked if he would do it all over again, he said, "absolutely. We are all very enthused and honored to be able to assist Hennepin County," he said.

Luckily some help is on the way, so teams don't wear down under 18-hour days.

As of today, a team of FBI forensic divers will be on hand to assist in the efforts. After Bush, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Hennepin County officials met Saturday, a request was made for the Department of Defense to allow Navy divers to assist recovery efforts. Word on that request is pending, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725 •

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