Full Lakes Spell Busy Summer for Sheriff’s Divers
By Wes Scarborough
Members of the Travis County Sheriff’s Underwater Recovery Team say they will never forget Sept. 9, 2014. That Friday was the day they pulled the body of one of their own, Senior Deputy Jessica Hollis, from the waters of rain-swollen Lake Austin.
The last anyone had heard from Hollis was a day earlier. Having stopped to check a low-water crossing during a week of torrential rains, she radioed in that her squad car was being swept away by floodwaters.
In the hours following, a team of 85, mainly Travis County Sheriff officers, looked for her by land and using surface craft. One of the two scuba teams that searched nearby creeks included members of the SURT, as the sheriff’s office underwater recovery team is known.
“I was directing the [overall] operations that day,” said Lt. Joe Escribano, who normally dives as SURT team leader. “I had to be a lieutenant that day, and I didn’t want to be.”
At last, on Friday afternoon, 36 hours after she disappeared, members of the Austin police dive team found Hollis’ body in the lake. In honor of Hollis and her comrades, the Austin divers let the sheriff’s team finish the job.
“They said ‘If we find her, we’ll mark her [with a buoy], and your boys will come and get her,’ ” Escribano said.
Escribano’s team went in. Recovery divers typically encase bodies in mesh bags before bringing them to the surface. In this case, four SURT divers brought her body to shore wrapped in an American flag, to honor their fallen comrade, as SURT members standing on shore raised their hands in salute.
Such, team members say, is their commitment to a hard job that is likely to get harder this summer.
SURT members, which now number six, are called upon, year in and year out, to recover the bodies of drowning victims in the area’s lakes and waterways. They’re on call and swing into action when needed; SURT activities are an “auxiliary duty,” Escribano said. Each time they descend to find a missing person, they must navigate a green abyss offering little or no visibility.
This summer they face two big challenges: a short-staffed dive team (down from a more typical complement of eight to 10 divers) and more lake-goers. “Now that it’s been widely publicized how full the lakes are and that the drought is over,” Detective Darrell Gibson said, “we anticipate a busier than not summer.”
Gibson said summer 2012 was one of their worst. They recovered 16 drowning victims, after two years during which Lake Travis had risen a total of 15 feet. By comparison, the lake has risen almost four times that much since January 2015.
“We expect history to repeat itself,” Gibson said.
Fewer SURT divers could be a handicap. Escribano said the team needs a minimum of eight divers for a “cycle,” in which divers rotate out of the water in pairs every half hour. That’s necessary because searches can take hours, if not days.
“After you do that two or three times, you’re spent,” Escribano said. “You have all that equipment on, and you’re working through obstacles, so you’re expending a lot of air as opposed to recreational diving.”
On top of that, the divers are typically working in cold conditions — water temperatures can sink to 55 degrees in the deeper parts of Lake Travis — with little or no visibility.
“On land you can approach a dead body and then decide how close you want to get to it,” said Sgt. Michael Stroh, a SURT member. “In the water, you don’t have that luxury. You usually bump into the body.”
Once that happens, Stroh said, he has to prepare himself mentally to finish his job and bring the body back to the surface. “I usually close my eyes,” he said. “I do everything by feel.”
SURT is an all-volunteer operation, drawing on qualified candidates from within the sheriff’s department. All must be scuba certified at the master level. They remain on call year round for dive missions that sometimes involve searching for criminal evidence. Ninety percent of time, however, they’re looking for drowning victims.
“Rescue [operations] didn’t work if we show up,” Detective Will Gonzalez, a dive team leader, said.
Stroh said their divers carry out between six and 20 missions each year, but the team expects to see even more this summer. To prepare, SURT members met in mid-April to plan their first training session of the summer at Lake Travis in June.
“Unfortunately in Lake Travis and Travis County, you have nothing but trees down there,” Escribano said. “It’s terrible, because people never drown at Windy Point in [open areas]. People always drown in the most awkward of places.”
According to golaketravis.com, Lake Travis is technically full, having risen a total of 56 feet since January 2015. Adding to the hazards, Escribano said, some of the dead trees that until recently poked above the lake’s 19,000-acre surface are now submerged and hidden from swimmers and boaters alike.
Lost fishing lines also present a problem. Gibson said he and other divers sometimes become entangled in monofilament line that is practically invisible below the surface.
“The trees attract fishermen,” Gibson said. “Fishermen try and hook a fish and hook a tree instead. It’s a serious entanglement hazard.”
“It’s a very slow, methodical process,” Stroh said of the typical dive mission, “especially if we’re looking for evidence”—things that might play a role in a homicide investigation, such as shell casings, ammunition or zip ties.
“I’ve had to cut off the tips of my gloves in cold water just to feel around for evidence,” Gibson said.
In 2012, the sheriff’s department received a grant to update SURT’s scuba equipment with new full-face masks, dry suits for cold water and the Sea Otter—a 7-foot-long, remote-operated vehicle resembling a small yellow submarine. The Otter is equipped with a video camera and is used to recon areas in advance of the dive team’s going in. Team members operate it with a Play Station 2 controller.
“[Will Gonzalez] is a gamer, so he’s the Sea Otter professional,” Escribano said.
The work is grim and risky, which are big factors in the recent loss of team members. As Gibson put it, “Nobody is waiting in line for this job.” Consequently, divers also equip themselves with a variety of mindsets. For some, it’s deep religious faith. For others, it’s a sense of community duty to recover a victim for a grieving family.
For some divers like Gibson — one of the four divers who wrapped Hollis’ body in the flag and took her to the surface — it’s a combination of factors.
“Even when I had to do the worst recovery imaginable,” Gibson said, faith and a sense of duty “allows me to focus on doing my job and allows me to do the job that I need to do it to find the cause of death.”