‘Anything to not lose it’: Search and rescue veteran explains what happens in drowning search and rescues

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(ABC4) – It seems to go hand-in-hand. The more folks are getting out to enjoy nature by hiking or camping in the woods or boating and swimming in a lake or reservoir, the more accidents and deaths occur.

Especially as the pandemic has driven more and more people to venture into the outdoors, wilderness and water recreation incidents are on the rise. Drowning accidents are particularly present at the moment with multiple cases in the last couple of weeks.

Sgt. Spencer Cannon of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office has seen many search and rescue operations in his career and sees this as a troubling year both in his jurisdiction and statewide. By his count, Utah has already seen 11 drownings in lakes and reservoirs with three alone in Utah County.

“Having three is more than we usually get,” he remarks to ABC4.

One commonality Cannon has seen in the drownings is that the victims were not wearing life jackets. The floatation devices, he says, are essential in preventing avoidable drownings. In his 31-year experience, Cannon has seen just one drowning in which the victim was wearing a life jacket. In that ordeal, the female victim succumbed to the heavy flow of the Diamond Fork River after she was trapped in the branches of a fallen tree in the middle of the river. Whenever possible, Cannon recommends anyone going into the water should wear a life jacket.

“You can have as much fun with a lifejacket, as you can without it. That dramatically increases the likelihood of survival, should something happen either you get injured or you get sick or you get fatigued or have cramps or whatever,” he says.

Should a person fall victim to a cramp or other situation that may cause them to go under – and Cannon adds that panic in the water doesn’t always look like typical panic – rescue divers are called in to enter the water and bring back whatever can be salvaged.

For the rescue swimmers, many of whom are scuba certified, locating and finding someone in the water can sometimes be an incredibly difficult task. There are basically two ways to find a body under the surface, either by sight or by feel. Should visibility be decreased, feeling for a deceased person while essentially blind and underwater, can take hours to accomplish.

Cannon explains that the typical procedure is for four or five divers to line up shoulder-to-shoulder and swim slowly across the bottom of the water, or even slightly above the bottom, as a drowned person doesn’t always sink all the way down.

It’s at this point that relying on previous training is essential for a rescuer. The movement of the water and the sentiment can be disorienting, and that’s assuming the diver is able to see anything at all. Should they be unable to see, they rely on touch by using either their hands or a pole to locate the victim.

Should the victim be found, rescuers are instructed to do everything they can to bring the deceased to the surface without letting go. If the body is found with a pole, a curved hook is used to apply steady pressure to it while pulling it to the boat waiting nearby. If the person is found by hand, divers resort to getting as tight a grip as possible on whatever they can hold, to bring the body back up.

“Hand, arm, foot, head, hair, anything that can guarantee they don’t lose it,” Cannon states.

Another challenge can arise at this time, and throughout the ordeal, when concerned family members are witnessing the rescue efforts. It can be incredibly emotional for the rescuers to work on behalf of and in front of a family in the middle of a nightmare sort of tragedy.

“The impact when the volunteers are in the middle of a rescue, they see the family members there and they see the crying and sometimes they’re just stoic, sometimes they’re wailing, they see that and it takes a toll on them emotionally,” Cannon, who often has the role of informing the family of the search process on drowning calls, says.

While the ultimate goal of any search and rescue team is to bring back a live person, there are times when bringing back a body is the best result possible.

Even though water levels are critically low across the state, Cannon reminds residents that it’s still possible to drown in areas that aren’t as deep as they have typically been. With the exception of lakes and reservoirs that have completely dried up, drowning can happen anywhere in Utah.

“There’s no risk of drowning in the Gunnison River reservoir right now, but the other ones, while they’re very low, they still have water in them,” Cannon states. “You have to still exercise caution, you can’t let your guard down.”

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