Dozens of first responders help in search
By Beth Altena
Rockford Police and fire, Algoma Fire and Rescue with their inflatable rescue boat, the Kent County Sheriff Dive team, the Kent County Sheriff motorized emergency rescue boat and Rockford Ambulance were all on the scene Tuesday, July 9 for a possible drowning at the Rockford dam.
According to Rockford Police Chief Dave Jones, a visitor to the dam called 911 after observing that a scuba diver had been under the water without coming up for over an hour. They had seen the diver drop a snorkel on to the dam and then go back underwater.
With over a dozen first responders and more than half a dozen rescue vehicles on the scene, the Algoma Township dive team, attached to shore by ropes, searched the water without success. Kent County Sheriff Deputy and rescue diver Don Hamilton prepared his scuba gear and rescue equipment with the assistance of other officers.
Hamilton had begun a search of the water under the dam when the diver returned to the surface near where he had placed his snorkel over an hour before. Chief Jones said that he believed the man was not following safety practices for diving. Hamilton called the man’s behavior “very unsafe.”
A group of residents had gathered at the dam watching rescue efforts. The diver, upon coming out of the water, seemed unaware of the efforts made on his behalf. He stayed in the water for awhile, telling rescue officers he needed some time to “get his land legs back.”
Hamilton said the individual broke many safety rules of scuba diving and that he had personally seen the man in the water at 2 p.m. when Hamilton was driving downtown.
Hamilton said divers are required to dive within 100 feet of a flag so boaters are aware of their presence. “If you drag a flag above you, it makes it really easy for us to find you if we suspect a problem,” he explained. Hamilton said rescuers and observers at the dam noticed no air bubbles indicating a diver’s breathing. “That’s what really made me believe this was a very bad situation,” he stated. However, after talking with the diver, he explained that the diver had been coming up for air, but under the dam spillway where he couldn’t be seen. He also was diving under the spillway while he was in the water so air bubbles were not visible. He noted that it is also very unsafe to dive alone and not an accepted practice.
Hamilton said the diver was not issued a ticket but received a severe talking to by authorities. He said the man seemed to think he had done nothing wrong. “This goes to the bill State Representative Pete MacGregor is trying to get passed where departments can recoup the cost of rescues when people are being stupid,” he said.
“Stupid is the best way to describe it, like kayaking in the river when there are record high levels of water.” Hamilton said he made several rescues during this spring’s flood, where people believed they were good enough kayakers to take on the flooded Grand River.
“You just never know what’s in the river in that kind of a situation,” Hamilton said. He also noted the Tuesday rescue is not the first where the outcome was lucky. In March 13, 1991 a boy fell into the Rogue River at the dam and was underwater for 37 minutes. The water was cold enough that it slowed his body function and when he was revived he suffered no permanent damage. “I just ran into that guy fishing in the river the other day,” Hamilton said.