In his 20 years as a member of the all-volunteer Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit (GSURU), Capt. Frank Nester has never found a drowning victim who was wearing a life jacket.
“The allure of the water is large, but the danger of drowning is underplayed,” says Nester, whose New Jersey team recently geared up for warmer weather and the start of swimming and boating season. “We don’t teach our kids to respect the water as we should.”
Since 1960, the all-volunteer water-rescue and dive-recovery team has responded to hundreds of water-related emergencies, rescued trapped flood victims from homes and cars, recovered drowning victims, assisted law enforcement agencies with underwater evidence searches, and provided water-safety assistance at numerous community events. Team members teach water and ice rescue and boating classes to the general public and other public safety agencies and offer instruction on water safety to local schools upon request.
Based in Hunterdon County, the GSURU responded to nearly a dozen calls in 2018, six of which were searches for bodies. The group’s approximately two dozen members, including a handful of women, are responsible for obtaining their own scuba training and gear and receive no compensation for their efforts. The GSURU does not bill for services and receives no government funding; it relies strictly on support from the community.
Other calls last year were for emergency standbys such as triathlons, which sometimes attract “hobbyists” who can be underprepared for the grueling swimming leg of the race, according to Nester, a GSURU life member.
“Our dive team is in boats on the periphery, suited up,” he says. “We call it ‘Ready 20’—ready to splash in in 20 seconds.
“Water rescues have to be made when the rescuers are already on scene,” Nester adds, because if a victim is not found within 45 minutes, it usually becomes a recovery effort. That’s typically when the GSURU receives a call.
“We are the bench, so to speak,” Nester says. “It’s the worst day in a family’s life when their loved one goes missing, but at least there’s closure when we recover the body. There is no joy.”
According to the unit’s safety officer, Greg Mactye, a 37-year member, most of what the group does is related to recovering drowning victims.
“Early and late in the season especially, the main danger is cold water, which means hypothermia and drowning subsequent to overturned boats and falls overboard,” says Mactye, a former EMT and water-rescue team leader with the Clinton (N.J.) First Aid & Rescue Squad. “The two most dangerous times of year for boating incidents are late fall and early spring, when the air is relatively warm but the water temperature is in the mid-40s.
“It strikes everyone, whether you know how to swim or not,” he says, stressing that inner tubes and inflatable rafts are no substitutes for life jackets, even for strong swimmers.
Mactye’s specialties are boat handling and safety, and he holds instructor certificates in a number of water-rescue disciplines. He was at one time the youngest federally certified boating safety instructor in the Somerville, N.J. branch of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Much has changed since the GSURU began nearly 60 years ago.
“Back in the 1940s and ’50s, the standard in recovering bodies trapped below water was to drag the bottom of the water with grappling hooks or use dynamite,” Nester says. “Those were less-than-ideal techniques.”
What hasn’t changed is the dearth of groups nationwide offering the skills and services provided by the GSURU. Pennsylvania, for example, has only one similar organization dedicated solely to underwater recovery. “There is no national agency that blesses what we do,” says Nester.
A Finesse Pursuit
Training for the GSURU takes 3–6 months, and not everyone needs to be a diver. There is always room for boat operators, spotters, line tenders (for the search lines tethered to the divers), EMTs and firefighters, and even individuals to assist with paperwork, fund-raising, and publicity.
Most GSURU members have been affiliated with the group for many years, with little turnover in membership. Some people are surprised the group includes approximately a half-dozen women.
“It’s a finesse pursuit,” Nester explains. “It doesn’t require a brute strength.”
One of those women is Sunny Longordo, the unit’s first female captain and current president. Longordo helped institute GSURU’s policy of assigning a specific member to act as a designated family liaison when a victim’s relatives are on the scene of an extended search.
“Often this is discussed and encouraged in water-rescue and underwater-recovery seminars, but few teams actually do it,” Longordo says. “Frequently family members who converge on a search location feel helpless, ignored, and out of the loop while so much is occurring around them.”
Assigning a specific GSURU team member to communicate with a single family representative helps create a bond between the groups, results in better communication regarding what to expect during the search, and often leads to lasting friendships and connections, Longordo says.
Sylvie Mulvaney, BSN, RN, EMT, is public relations representative for the EMS Council of New Jersey, of which the Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit is a member. Formerly the New Jersey State First Aid Council, the EMS Council represents more than 260 EMS agencies and approximately 17,000 EMS volunteers throughout the state.