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Published: July 15, 2008 11:06 pm ShareThisPrintThis
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Diving in Public safety officials train in river's challenging current
By Stephen Tait
Staff Writer

NEWBURYPORT - Sgt. Stephen Chaisson yesterday stood on the bow of a boat anchored in the Merrimack River and yelled to a Merrimac police officer who sat in a dinghy about 40 yards away dressed in a wet suit and diving gear.
"Did you find my clay pigeon?" Chaisson asked.
Officer Rich Holcroft did in fact find Chaisson's pigeon - which he'd thrown into the water on purpose - and many other items, including a few cell phones, fishing equipment and an old bicycle, not to mention other trash.
"It is amazing how much trash people throw into the river," Holcroft said.
But the officer wasn't there to pick up trash. The Merrimack River, with its dangerous currents, served as a training ground for about a dozen public safety professionals from the area and as far away as Vermont who were participating in diving certification programs.
Newburyport police Lt. Rick Siemasko said that area is a place where they've had to dive for bodies, lost equipment and not too long ago, a woman's purse with about $1,000 in it.
"This is actually a section of river we are called to dive in regularly," Siemasko said.
Siemasko and Chaisson said the Merrimack River can provide a host of problems for rescues and recoveries. They say the currents can pick up to 4 to 5 knots, the visibility can be as little as 6 inches, and the changing tides provide varying movements.
The waters off Newburyport have claimed two lives in the last decade from people falling off boats.
Adding to the danger, Siemasko said, is the debris in the water. He said often there are trees, barrels and other large objects rolling along the bottom.
"Diving is actually one of the most dangerous things we do as an agency," Siemasko said.
The training is part of a three-day course, put on by Colorado-based Dive Rescue International and hosted by the Newburyport Police Department, that ends today.
Yesterday's session included training for swift water rescues, an essential skill, officers say, since the Merrimack's current and visibility often prove difficult for diving. The officers practiced in water just off the Newburyport harbormaster shack along the boardwalk downtown.
Siemasko said Newburyport has a five-member dive team, while Salisbury employs two divers and Newbury and Amesbury each have one.
During yesterday's training, two boats anchored in the Merrimack with two anchors. Divers then worked downstream from the boats, moving systematically back and forth along the bottom of the river, getting instructions from another officer above water on the boats.
The only evidence divers were in the water - other than the boats - was the occasional bubbles disturbing the surface of the water, indicating the diver is just below.
"It's a little darker, it's cooler, and there is a current to deal with. But it's not bad," Holcroft said. "You don't do it everyday, though. It is not a recreational dive. Diving in currents is a lot different. When you have currents, the dynamic of the water is just incredible.
"But as long as you have air, everything else is a minor inconvenience."


Area police officers train for diving recovery in swiftly moving waters in the Merrimack River yesterday. Police assist fellow officer Rich Holcroft of Merrimac out of the water just upriver from the harbormaster's station.
Bryan Eaton / Staff photo


Salisbury police officer Dan McNeil, left, and Newburyport police Sgt. Steve Chaisson motor near a Colchester, Vt., firefighter as they were being trained in diving recovery.
Bryan Eaton / Staff photo
 
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