News Column

Special responder: Don't take natural waterways for granted when swimming

May 25, 2014

By Lance Coleman, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.

May 25--MARYVILLE -- People are starting to treat national parks like amusement parks, and that's not a good thing when it comes to water safety, one area rescue and recovery diver said.

Roger Murphy is a Maryville High School teacher who works with the Blount Special Operations Response Team. The team is involved in all rescue and recovery missions on either water or land in Blount County, including the Blount County side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It operates through the Blount County Sheriff's Office.

"One of the things we are beginning to see is people who go to water parks in controlled situations and then they'll leave and go into the national park or a river, creek or lake and think they're still in a water park and don't recognize the danger they're in. It is not a controlled situation," he said.

Murphy said most of the urgent calls the team responds to fall into three categories: poor judgment, involvement of alcohol or drugs or simply a tragic accident.

Generally when a call for the team comes in, circumstances are dire. Someone is missing and their boat has turned up empty, or a person jumped off a waterfall and didn't surface, he said.

Murphy said the team tries to debrief witnesses and to determine if possible the point where the person was last seen in the water. Then they'll put together a mission plan where one person will dive, a second will go in next, another will act as back up and another person may walk along shore and look for anything along the sides.

"Then, we'll begin to dive. When you go into water and know somebody is there, more than anything else, you want to complete that mission. You want to recover that body more than anything else. For me, that is somebody's little boy or little girl. That is somebody's husband's or friend, and I really want to get that person back to their loved ones."

Diving conditions are usually challenging because the water is so dark at the bottom.

"We're probing with our hands, and very seldom can we see anything," he said.

There's relief once a body has been recovered.

"But it is also very sad because you think about all the potential that person had. You especially think about their loved ones who care so much about them," he said. "It is difficult to know that really is the end. We hear the families talk, and they say we didn't get to say goodbye, and it is really difficult. It is really hard."

Speaking from experience, Murphy said, there are some harsh realities that people who go out on the water should consider.

For example, children as well as adults should always wear life preservers when boating, he said.

"If they're on the surface. Even if they're hurt, we can get them right now," he said. "If they go under, it may take a while. We have some sophisticated equipment to help us, but that is very complex."

Every child should know how to swim, "and swim good," by the time they're 10 years old, Murphy said.

"They need to be able to at least save themselves, get to the side and get to the bank," he said.

People also need to be aware of their abilities. Just because they could swim across a lake a year earlier doesn't mean they can do it again this year, he said.

"You have to be aware of your own personal limitations," Murphy said. "Also, before anybody goes in, take a good look around at what's going on. What are you jumping into, what are you stepping off into? If there is a warning there, it is there for a reason."

Murphy said there are warning signs at the popular "Sinks" in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Little River.

"If you look at The Sinks today, there is a set of placards in place showing a massive recovery. That's our team there, where we spent hours and hours and hours," he said.

Murphy said there were already warning signs up before they had to do the nine-hour recovery depicted in the placards, and more have been put up since.

"But the truth of the matter is some people just don't heed that advice," he said.


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