S.O.R.T.I.E. - Special Operations Rescue Tactical Interdiction Expeditions

 
The New York Police Department (NYPD) Scuba Team

By Hillary Viders, Ph.D.


Evidence search in the East River. Police Officers; John Dalton and Wayne Mc Laughlin.

AT THE CORE OF THE BIG APPLE

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) Scuba Team presides over one of the toughest environments in the world- over 500 miles around and under the waters of urban New York City. The Scuba Team, which is a sub-unit of the NYPD Harbor Patrol, was created in 1966, with six divers. Before then, the NYPD had to bring in outside commercial contractors to perform underwater operations. This was a problem, however, because commercial divers are not trained in evidence handling or court testimony.

The NYPD Scuba Team now has 28 members, ranging from ages twenty-four to forty-five. The Team is comprised of one lieutenant, three sergeants, three detectives, and twenty four police officers. It is a team which has exceptional longevity and camaraderie. Many of the current members have been on the Team for fifteen years or more, and, although they receive no additional pay for the physically demanding underwater work they do, they all take pride in being part of the elite corps. Since 1968, fewer than 100 candidates have been accepted on the team, although several thousand have applied.

MAKING THE GRADE

Making the grade for the NYPD Scuba Team is no easy task. In addition to comprehensive written and medical exams, candidates (who must have at least two years of street patrol experience) are required to perform a minimum of 12 pull-ups, 32 pushups, 75 sitting tucks, a mile run in under 6:48, a 500-yard swim in under 12 minutes, a 25 yard underwater swim wearing a 10 pound weight belt, a 15 minutes survival float and 3 minutes treading water using feet only.

Once accepted to the Team, members must maintain a high level of physical and mental acuity. All Team members are EMT trained and proficient in boat handling and maintenance, equipment repair, and helicopter operations. The NYPD Scuba Team is one of the only (if not THE only) full time law enforcement Dive Rescue and Recovery Teams in the country. The Team, divided into four squads which alternate working in 12 hour shifts, tackle anything and everything that can possibly happen in or around water, from air-to-sea helicopter rescues to scouring sewers for explosives.

GETTING DOWN AND DIRTY


Part of NYPD Scuba Team at U.S.C.G. Station, Moriches, prior to the day’s diving.
Front: Allen Kane, John Harkins, Tom Kelly, Jim Cowan, J.P. Fehn, Steve Bienkowski. Rear: Kevin Gallagher

Although the Team is based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, their dive missions are spread throughout the five boroughs of the Big Apple. Their domain includes the North Atlantic Ocean, as well as a slew of murky canals, lakes, and rivers where the currents can run as fast a 6 knots per hour. They patrol bridges, dive in intake pipes and sewers, and have even searched (and found) a revolver in a water tower on top of the World Trade Center. The NYPD Scuba Team often has to work under hostile environmental conditions which can include sludge, mud, toxins, parasites, debris, thick vegetation, ice, night time or zero visibility, frigid water, rough seas and weather, and strong currents. But, regardless of what Mother Nature throws their way, the NYPD divers routinely retrieve weapons of every size and description, planes, boats, and victims of accidents, homicides, and suicides. P.O. Officer Wayne McLaughlin recalls one of the Scuba Team’s recent gun seizures: “We were tipped off by “Sammy the Bull,” the notorious Mafia informant. He led us to an isolated area of the Gravesend Bay, where we struck pay dirt. We began by retrieving seven guns, one after the other.”

Drug interdiction is another responsibility of the NYPD Scuba Team. P.O. Kevin Gallagher explains that “we patrol the waters and search boats both topside and underwater. We recently confiscated a cache of six million dollars worth of cocaine which was being smuggled under the hull of a cargo ship.”

NO SHORTAGE OF EQUIPMENT OR EXPERIENCE

The Team members credit their outstanding success rate to top flight equipment and experience. The current 24 divers have a combined total of 225 years of law enforcement diving experience, apart from their additional recreational diving experience. The Team’s arsenal of equipment includes side scan sonar, ROVs, drop video cameras, metal detectors, and specialized tools and weapons. Additionally, the Team has at its disposal all the resources of the NYPD Harbor Patrol - a fleet of helicopters and water craft. This gives the Team the ability to reach any body of water in the city’s five boroughs as well as any offshore site in its jurisdiction within ten minutes. The NYPD Scuba Team recently acquired two state-of-the-art 2 Alpha hand-held sonar guns. The 2 Alpha is a device which helps divers locate targets with exceptional accuracy. DET. Allen Kane, who follows search and recovery technology closely, predicts that in the near future, public safety divers will be able to carry a hand held sonar unit and have a heads up display in their face mask “The device is actually in the development stage right now,” Allen explains.

“But the price is too prohibitive. I’m sure that when the units become affordable, New York City will requisition them.” Because of the extremely hazardous environments in which they work, NYPD Scuba Team Members always dive in dry suits with full face masks and underwater communications, and carry an array of knives and wire cutters. On at least one occasion, the heat-trapping property of the dry suits proved to be its own hazard. In 1995, when 50 world leaders were scheduled to meet at the United Nations, the NYPD responded to suspected bomb threats. A potential site for terrorist activity was the World Financial Center, where the leaders were scheduled to stop. Operating from a small Zodiac, a covert squad of NYPD divers had to thread its way through the tunnel which lay directly under the glass atrium in the building’s lobby where the leaders were convening. For 24 hours, the NYPD Scuba Team kept constant underwater watch and made a total of 95 surveillance dives in the 20 foot deep, 300 yard long fetid pool of water in dry suits. The water temperature was close to 90 degrees F, because it absorbed the out take from the building’s air conditioning system.

Underlying many of the team’s successes is support from upper level management. In particular, Team members have high praise for NYC Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Mayor Rudy Guiliani.

TWA FLIGHT 800 SEARCH AND RECOVERY


Recovering Flight 800 Wreckage.
John Harkins, Kevin Gallagher, John Hansen, Cal
Roberts, Jack Cassidy, Ed Markunas, John Farley, Tom Kelly, J.P. Fehn, Allen Kane, Bob Giannelli.

The NYPD Scuba Team was one of the first law enforcement response teams on the scene after TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Munches, NY, on July 17, 1997. The NYPD Scuba Team maintained an important presence throughout the search and recovery operation (from July 17th to Nov. 2, 1997, when diving was terminated). During the crucial first weeks of the operation, NYPD personnel were on site round the clock, alternating 12 hour shifts. Hundreds of NYPD officers were involved, from the entire harbor patrol, the scuba team, the bomb squad, the emergency service unit, the helicopters of the aviation unit, highway patrol units and numerous precinct and headquarters personnel. In addition to their multiple responsibilities at the crash site in Long Island, many of the officers had to commute 75 miles back and forth to New York City to perform their regular duties as well.

The first NYPD Scuba Team members to arrive at East Moriches were Detective Kevin Collins, P.O. Wayne McGlaughlin, P.O. John Dalton, and P.O. Mike Lucere. They were were flown in by NYPD Aviation Unit helicopter and landed at the Air National Guard Station at approximately 10:00 PM, less than two hours after the Paris-bound Boeing 747 had crashed eight to ten miles offshore. P.O. Gallagher and the rest of the dive team who responded to the call, rushed to the NYPD Scuba Base in Brooklyn, quickly gathered their gear, and then drove to Moriches. When he arrived at the Moriches Coast Guard Station at 11:00 PM, Gallagher remembers, “it was total chaos. Hundreds of people were running around, and the ocean was inundated with floating debris and the stench of burning jet fuel.”

P.O. Kevin Gallagher and his partner, P.O. John Dalton, were the first NYPD divers to dive the crash site, when diving operations began on July 22nd. The buddy team retrieved two of the 230 victims who had been on board Flight 800. They also brought in dozens of body parts from the underwater carnage.

The NYPD Scuba Team brought a plethora of equipment to Moriches, including dive gear, a portable compressor, and side scan sonar units. The side scan sonar, which was the only reliable tracking device available until the NAVY arrived with their own sophisticated equipment, was vital to the recovery operation. It allowed divers to observe and record many targets which lay on the ocean floor, 120 feet below. This data became a foundation and starting point for the NAVY’s operations. Later, it was revealed that the NYPD had located the main wreckage of Flight 800.

From July to November, the NYPD Scuba Team made countless sorties to the crash site, which encompassed an astounding 30 square miles. Under the direction of the US NAVY, and working with an unprecedented number of other response and law enforcement teams (FBI, New York State Troopers, Suffolk County PD, etc.), the NYPD Scuba Team undertook the most massive and complex operation in their department’s history. In the first six weeks alone, their portable compressor worked over 200 hours filling scuba tanks (most response team divers began the operation using single 80 Cu ft or 100 cu ft. tanks, then switched to double 80’s when they became available). Amidst miles of tangled cables, mounds of jagged debris, and a variety of curious sharks, the NYPD divers video taped the site underwater, located and recovered victims (8 bodies and dozens of body parts), tons of plane wreckage, and an array of personal mementos belonging to the jet’s ill-fated crew and passengers.

Everything the divers retrieved had to be brought back to the Command Post at East Moriches where it was carefully examined, catalogued, and transferred to the FBI Evidence Response Team. In an article published in Police, P.O. Gallagher recounted, “The personal side of the operation hit home when items like passports, children’s stuffed toys, books, photos, sneakers and water-logged postcards that would never be mailed, started turning up.” Although the visibility (between 3 and 40 feet) was better than that encountered on most of NYPD dive operations, the search and recovery of TWA Flight 800 was a dangerous operation, both topside as well as underwater. Divers had to contend with dry suit tears from jagged debris and flooded communications units. The launches which ferried the divers to and from the crash site were often pounded with eight to ten foot seas as they passed through the Moriches inlet. On one occasion, a launch nearly capsized, as a 15 foot wave smashed through the pilot house window. The passengers, who were catapulted every which way, suffered bruises and lacerations. DET Kevin Collins recalls the heroic actions of a fellow passenger, Sarah (“Sally”) Turkavage, an FBI Evidence Response Team member: “Sally was usually as quiet and shy as they come. But, when as soon as that wave hit and bodies went flying, you should have seen that lady spring into action! Although injured herself, she immediately rushed to help administer first aid to everyone else, and she had the foresight to put a life vest on a diver who had been stunned by a blow to the head.”

These and numerous other acts of courage will remain a hallmark of the TWA Flight 800 operation. Sergeant James Cowan and SGT. John Cummings, who served as Diving Supervisors for the NYPD Scuba Team on a rotating basis during the TWA operation, have the highest praise for the bravery and perseverance which was demonstrated throughout the arduous search and recovery. SGT Cowan recently noted with great enthusiasm that, “TWA Flight 800 was without a doubt the most difficult operation in the history of the NYPD Scuba Team. Whatever challenges we anticipated before we went in, proved to be a hundred times worse. But the operation was a huge success. I am proud of each and every member of the NYPD Scuba Team and of the cooperative spirit amongst all the members of all the response teams!”