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


By Hillary Viders, Ph.D.

Fighting to Win

SUPSALV is the Navy's office of the Director of Ocean Engineering, Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, also known in the Fleet as 003. SUPSALV, which reports to the Surface Ship Directorate of the Naval Sea Systems Command, responds to and supports national disasters and emergencies. SUPSALV is responsible for all aspects of ocean engineering, including salvage, ship repair, contracting, towing, undersea search, object recovery, diving safety, and equipment maintenance and procurement.

SUPSALV was created in the 1940s by Commodore William Sullivan. The startling situations which arose during World War II, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the massive ship-strewn harbors in North Africa and Southern France, required a force to coordinate and support the Navy's salvage efforts. To further that goal, a training school for Navy salvage divers was set up in New York City. During a ten-week program, Navy divers were given intensive academic and practical training. They honed their technical skills by salvaging the Normandy, a huge luxury liner that had caught fire while berthed at New York Harbor. The Navy diving school was subsequently moved to Bayonne, New Jersey, then to the Washington, D.C. Navy yard, and finally to its current location in Panama City, Florida. The SUPSALV office was set up in Washington, D.C., then moved to Arlington, Virginia in the 1970s. SUPSALV currently has five sectors: the Management and Support Division, the Salvage Operations Division, the Diving Program Division, the Diving Certification Division, and the Underwater Ship Husbandry Division. The Management Support Division prepares and tracks contractual and financial documents and provides logistic support to other divisions in SEA 003. The Salvage Operations Division handles salvage and recovery and oil spill control operations. The Diving Program Division is responsible for setting diving policy and approving U.S. Navy diving equipment and procedures. In conjunction with the Diving Program, the Naval Experimental Dive Unit, based in Panama City, works for SUPSALV in testing and evaluation of equipment, and diving biomedical and equipment research and development. The Diving Certification Division serves as the System Certification Authority for shipboard and portable hyperbaric systems. The Underwater Ship Husbandry Division develops techniques, procedures, and equipment to perform ship repairs while waterborne.

Over the last five decades, SUPSALVs staff and role have expanded greatly. The Arlington, Virginia office contains a 55 person staff; 45 civilians and ten military personnel, including an Admiralty Attorney and a Royal Navy Exchange Officer. The military staff are all trained Navy divers... eight Diving Officers and two Master Divers. Many of the civilians are also Navy divers. Nowadays, SUPSALV not only supplies technical, operational, and emergency support to the Navy, the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies, it also provides the ocean engineering disciplines of marine salvage, pollution abatement, diving, diving system certification, and underwater ship husbandry. SUPSALV also saves the Navy countless days in dry-dock repairs by doing underwater repairs, including such tasks as welding and repairing propellers and rudders. These innovations and expanded resources give SUPSALV the ability to accomplish its mission, to improve the Navys level of readiness, safety, and capability, which will enable the nation, if necessary, to fight and win.

Covering the World

Moriches Inlet, Long Island, NY (Aug. 14, 1996) An aerial view of the U.S. Navy's salvage rescue ship USS Grasp (ARS 51) as it conducts search and recovery operations on the ill-fated TWA Fight 800 crash site.
U.S. Navy Photograph

SUPSALVs work is not limited to American waters. Through three salvage contracts, SUPSALV provides worldwide salvage and towing services. These contracts allow SUPSALV to meet maritime emergencies with personnel and equipment customized to suit the job, whether it be in Antarctica, Oman, Africa, or the South Shore of Long Island. SIJPSALVs naval architects (salvage engineers) are recognized experts in providing salvage engineering assistance utilizing the Program of Ship Salvage Engineering to evaluate structural integrity, stability, and all other engineering aspects of salvage operations.

One of SUPSALVs greatest advantages is that it is a totally self-supporting presence from the sea which can aid large scale disasters and provide disaster relief. SUPSALV can come to an operation fully supplied, self-sufficient, and capable of sustaining an effort for a long period.

CAPT. Raymond (Chip) McCord, Director of Ocean Engineering and Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, who has been with the U.S. Navy for 25 years, maintains that, We are not in competition with commercial salvage companies. If a salvage company is available and capable of doing a job, they are contracted to do it. Individual commercial salvage companies and other navies in other countries may be able to respond to an emergency with certain capabilities, but SUPSALV is unique in its ability to deliver the whole package.

As such, SUPSALV routinely is called to respond to large-scale and difficult disaster operations involving strandings, collisions, fires, and engineering casualties, often with civilian contractors under the direction of its salvage specialists. In 1973, SUPSALV reopened the Suez Canal following the Arab-Israeli War, and in 1986, SUPSALV led the recovery of the Challenger space shuttle, an extensive multi-dimensional operation which necessitated the use of submersibles, nuclear submarines, gas diving systems, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), scuba divers, and surface supplied divers. In 1996, SUPSALV assisted the Dominican Republic in the search for and salvage of the flight data recorder of a downed 757 aircraft from a depth of 7,000 feet. It also recently helped the Chilean government debeach a large amphibious assault naval vessel that was grounded. In another mission, in which a U.S. Air Force C-l41 was reported to have collided with a German Tupolov off the coast of Namibia, SUPSALV located the debris field and helped recover the flight data recorders.

Within the U.S., SUPSALV has also been charged with many high profile operations. These include the EXXON Valdez oil spill cleanup (SUPSALV equipment recovered 50% of the oil), the search for the Value Jet 757 which crashed in the Florida Everglades in 1996, and the search for and salvage of the infamous TWA Flight 800 that same year.

High Performance and High Tech Equipment

To help meet some of these daunting challenges, SUPSALV uses an arsenal of high tech equipment, including ROVs, which can scour the ocean floor at depths to 20,000 feet, and the latest advances in sonar, radar, laser imaging, and global satellite positioning (GPS) systems. Tom Salmon, who has 23 years of service with the Navy, and is currently the Director of Operations and Ocean Engineering Division of SUPSALV, recalls, We've always had cutting edge equipment as soon as it became available. SUPSALV began using side scan sonar when it was developed in the late 1960s, and, in 1975, we began using ROVs for deep water salvage.

Recent advances in computer technology have become a cornerstone of SUP5ALV’s search and salvage operations, from the initial planning through the implementation of the operation. SUPSALVs search systems range from simple towed pinger locators to sophisticated side scanning sonar. With these systems, SUPSALV has successfully located items as small as airplane propellers and as large as sunken ships. Once the target is located, a ROV inspects and, if necessary, assists in salvaging the item. These services are commonly utilized to support USAF, NASA, USCG and other federal agencies, in addition to U.S. Navy requirements. All of these systems are designed to be operated off ships of opportunity and, if the situation requires, flown to the site.

SUPSALVs outstanding equipment carries a hefty price tag. During the search and recovery of TWA Flight 800 in 1996, for example, the Navy supplied its own scuba divers, as well as divers from participating response teams, with AN/PQS 2A (2 Alpha) hand-held sonar units. Each of these units costs about $30,000. (note: The TWA 800 operation cost the Navy $13.5 million, not including salaries of military/government personnel or rental of military equipment). In general, the cost of SUPSALVs diving systems far exceeds the budgets of most local law enforcement search and recovery teams. CAPT. McCord explains why military equipment is so expensive: The Navy's diving missions are extremely hazardous and often lengthy. To find mines underwater, you don't send a diver down with a flimsy gadget. Our dive equipment, both surface supplied and scuba, has to be top quality, extremely rugged, some of it is non-magnetic, and made to very specific standards. It must pass standards beyond what is required of equipment used by a local response team because, unlike local agencies, we work in the harshest and most extreme environments around the world with no logistic or technical support. Our equipment doesn’t just have to perform for a few minutes or a few hours. We're equipped to stay for the long haul.

In addition to its current diving hardware, SUPSALV is assisting in the evaluation of a one-atmosphere suit which is being developed (by Can Dive in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) in conjunction with the U.S. Navy. These suits, designated as ADS (Atmosphere Dive Suits), will enable Navy divers to work at depths to 2,000 feet. SUPSALV is also developing its new dive systems to be totally portable by aircraft, or fly away capable, to provide the necessary tools for a more mobile mission.

Equally important as SUPSALVs technology, is the Navy's corps of elite dive teams. Navy diving is extremely effective in both military and contract operations, emphasizes CDR. Barbara (Bobbie) Scholley, U.S. Navy Supervisor of Diving. CDR. Scholley, who has been in the Navy for the past 17 years, continues: We have many types of divers - Salvage Divers, Construction Divers, Repair Divers, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Divers, and Combat Divers - and they are all outstanding, both in terms of mission success and safety record.

The TWA Fight 800 Operation.

Moriches Inlet, Long Island, NY (Aug. 15, 19986 Navy Diver Petty Officer First Class Dean Alired, of Wellsville, Kan., prepares to make his next dive during search and recovery operations on the ill-fated TWA Plight 800. He is Using a hand-held sonar to search the bottom for pieces of wreckage.
U.S. Navy Photograph by Chief Photographer Mark M. Reinhard (Released)

It was the Navy divers who spearheaded the search and recovery of TWA Flight 800, the Boeing 747 which exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, killing all 230 people aboard. Beginning the night that TWA Flight 800 crashed - July 17, 1996 - until the cessation of the operation ten months later, SUPSALV developed and implemented the plan of action in concert with the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), the FBI, the USCG, and over two dozen other agencies and response teams (Suffolk County Police Department Dive Team, FBI Dive Team, N.Y. State Police Dive Team, NYPD Scuba Team, Air National Guard, Red Cross, etc.). CAPT. McCord repeatedly praises the contributions of everyone who worked cooperatively throughout the operation: Although the Navy played a major role in the search and recovery of TWA Flight 800, a lot of credit goes to the many other response agencies and the commercial contractors who responded so quickly and effectively.

Within hours after the crash, a small Navy contingent arrived at the East Moriches Coast Guard Station. Captain McCord and Tom Salmon arrived the next day. Soon after, they were followed by Rear Admiral Ed Kristensen (the Officer in Tactical Command, or OTC) and CDR. Scholley (who served as Diving and Salvage Adviser to Rear Admiral Kristensen, and liaison for CAPT. McCord) as the Navy's resources swelled to a total of 1200 officers and enlisted personnel. The Navy also brought in the command ships, USS Oak Hill and USS Trenton, as well as the rescue and salvage ships, USS Grasp and USS Grapple. SUPSALV contracted the services of Motor Vessel (MV) Pirouette, and MV Diane G. These vessels were used to do the side scan sonar and the Laser Line Scan (note: the NOAA vessel, Rude, also did side scan sonar). Three hundred and seventy-five divers (225 of whom were Navy divers) made 4,344 dives - 677 hard hat dives and 3,667 scuba dives. During the trawling phase of the operation, SUPSALV contracted for the services of F/V Christian Alexa, F/V Kathy Ann, F/V Tradition, F/VAlpha & Omega, F/VNordic Pride, and M/VAtlantic Surveyor~

The SUPSALV plan, as developed by CAPT. McCord (who was in charge of the salvage operation) and Tom Salmon, proved very effective. Even after having narrowed the search area from 75 square miles to about 25 square miles, it was still deemed too spread out to allow divers to make random searches. SUPSALV also used one of its deep ocean search contractors, Oceaneering Technologies, Inc., which was on board the search vessels to use side scan sonar and line laser imaging. This system located thousands of targets, which the ROVs or divers were then sent to identify. The targets were plotted on charts by using the GPS coordinates.

At the beginning of each day, the shore based mobile dive teams were briefed on their assigned target locations. The salvage ships were also updated daily on which target areas to concentrate their efforts. After every dive, each diver filled out and submitted a data sheet. By the end of the operation, the amount of data was staggering. SUPSALV began its search and recovery by using surface supplied divers and ROVs around the clock and mobile scuba divers (including three female divers) during daylight hours. They dove on everything that showed up on sonar, going for the bigger, or high probability targets first, since they would most likely contain victims.

The Navy rescue and salvage ships, USS Grasp and USS Grapple, arrived at the crash site on July 23rd and July 30th, respectively, to conduct Mark 21 surface supplied diving and ROV operations over the large debris fields. After USS Grasp had secured a multi-point mooring over the first large debris field, Navy hard hat divers were lowered every day on a stage to a target site on the ocean floor. The hard hat divers used an umbilical which provided them (there were three women divers) with air, 130° F. water to warm the dive suit, and voice communication. Recovered items were put in baskets or attached to a line and hoisted up to the salvage ship. The hard hat divers ascended using the USN Dive Manual procedure for surface decompression on oxygen. The decompression was done in the chambers on board the USS Grasp and USS Grapple. Initially, the Navy hard hat divers remained at 120 feet for 90 minutes; the dive schedule was subsequently shifted to 120 feet for 60 minutes to allow a greater safety margin.

The Ultimate Multi-Dimensional Operation

The TWA Flight 800 operation, unprecedented in the U.S. annals of search and recovery operations, presented multiple challenges to all the response teams. Even during good weather (a half dozen hurricanes passed through the area), boat handlers had to maneuver through perilous surf to transport divers and equipment through the Moriches Inlet several times a day. Occasionally, the pounding twelve-foot breakers would injure crew and passengers, and/or damage boats. Divers, on the other hand, had to contend with deep diving in cold, dark, rough water in the open ocean. The crash site was some eight miles offshore and encompassed a massive search area that was littered with fields of razor sharp debris, cables, and electrical wires. Entanglement was a major hazard. For those using scuba, bottom time was limited to 15 minutes and there were no repetitive dives. Using this conservative dive profile, there were few bends incidents. (note: The Navy was equipped with two recompression chambers on its vessels and a portable chamber which it set up at the Moriches Coast Guard Station. Divers with DCI symptoms (mostly hard hat divers) were treated in these chambers on standard Navy treatment tables, all of whom had successful resolution of symptoms.)

Communication presented another challenge. Many of the principals of the lead agencies in the operation- CAPT. McCord, Rear Admiral Kristensen from the U.S. Navy, NTSB Vice Chairman Bob Francis, FBI Assistant Dir. James Kallstrom and FBI SAC Joe Cantamessa, had to communicate not only with each other on a daily basis, but were forced to spend a lot of time dealing with the media and briefing the families of the 230 victims.

Despite all of these obstacles of the TWA Flight 800 operation, CAPT. McCord, CDR. Scholley, and Tom Salmon all agreed that they would not have done anything differently. We had the right people and the best equipment to handle this response, CAPT McCord recalled recently. The loss of human life in the TWA 800 disaster was horrible, but some positive aspects emerged from the search and recovery operation. The teamwork amongst the many diverse agencies was exemplary, and the collective resources assembled could not be matched by any other country in the world. Above all, this event reassured the American people that we are ready and fully capable to support our country in the time of national disaster. The search and recovery of TWA Flight 800 demonstrated that we in the Navy, as well as those people in law enforcement and public safety, dedicate our lives on a daily basis to ensure the safety of America. (note: To date, all 230 victims of TWA Flight 800 have been identified, and over 98% of the aircraft has been recovered and examined. The FBI officially ended its investigation into the cause of the crash, which remains unknown.)