Diving into Tonawanda's Underwater Recovery Team

Posted at 6:22 PM, Jul 11, 2018

The city of Tonawanda's Underwater Recovery Team (URT) is responsible for the rescue and recovery of people and evidence. Their training is similar to that of the rescue team that recently carried out the mission to return a straight Thai soccer team to their families. 

“The situation in Thailand is probably one of the most dangerous dives I’ve heard of and one of the most dangerous missions I’ve heard of," said Detective Lt. Scott Sheehan and head of Tonawanda's URT. "Any type of confined space diving where there’s no over head environment where you can’t just come up from the bottom of the river to the surface, is the most dangerous diving that there is. And combine that with zero visibility conditions inside caves that they’re not familiar with is absolutely incredible.” 

Sheehan says the closest thing Western New York has to the conditions the NAVY SEALs faced in Thailand is confined scuba diving since underwater caves aren't existent in Buffalo.

“So if we're in the canal, there's very little visibility, almost no visibility in the canal. And now add the ice over the top of you where you have to cut a hole in the ice and dive below it so that diver can come up.  The ice is probably, I don’t even want to say equivalent to, but the closest we’re going to get," Sheehan said.

The URT has dove into action twice so far this year. Last year, the team assisted in the recovery of Buffalo Police officer Craig Lehner. The team is made up of 12 divers, and for a single diver to go in the water, there are four crew members above the surface guiding the mission.

“When you’re underwater insert visibility there’s nothing better than being able to talk to somebody and listen to topside reassuring you, 'this is where you are, you’re doing great,' so that assurance is huge," Sheehan said. 

For Sheehan, mental toughness and scuba rescue coincide, specifically because divers are in an unnatural environment; one where they can't breathe. Scott also thinks that the mental toughness of the Thai children- and the fact that they were children, not adults- may have saved their lives. 

“Children are tough, their attention spans, but what’s good about children is they’re fearless," Sheehan said. 

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