Using team work to help others in need

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 19, 2010

(Part two of a three-part series)

Under normal circumstances a diver would use a lifeline, but these circumstances were anything but normal. This made the use of a lifeline impossible. We decided to use hand signals by touch to communicate underwater. We first tried to go down with an anchor; we quickly found this would not work. The current took the anchor and us with it. We would be forced back to the top to decide on another plan of action. After a brief discussion, we decided to slide down one of the pilings and keep the current to our backs. The force of the current would then push us into the pilings, and this allowed us to get to the bottom.

As we slid down the piling, daylight slowly faded and the only thing visible was the murky water surrounding our diving masks. It was complete and total darkness. In a matter of minutes, we were on the bottom. The bottom was cold and felt very strange, and we began to hear noises. The sounds were like eerie cries as pieces of the bridge, slabs of concrete and iron, were settling into the water. This was only a part of the Manchac Bridge that had fallen into the water and was gradually sinking to the bottom.

As we held onto the beam, it would suddenly move. We would stop and wait to see what might happen next. A few times we were struck by small pieces of concrete and were lucky the large ones always missed us. When we came to a cross beam, John would stay where he was, and I would work my way across the beam to the other side. Then I would start back to where John was waiting. This trip across the beam took about 15 minutes. As I think back about it now, I realize how hard it must have been for my partner to hold onto an iron beam in 50 feet of muddy water with large pieces of concrete falling down around him while he wondered if I was going to make it back.

I would count arm’s lengths while going across the beam so that when I reversed I would know about how far back I had to go. We did this at each cross beam until we ran out of air. A tank of air would last about one hour although we could not see our gauges.

When it started getting hard to breathe, we gave the signal and had to back track to where we had started. At one point, we were under a large piece of concrete, so we knew we could not go straight up and had to backtrack to get to the top. We dove for two or three hours in these conditions and knew that this would not be a rescue operation; now it would be a recovery operation. Exhausted from the conditions, we would stop for the first day to rest and begin making plans for the next day.

With the assistance of other law enforcement agencies and the public, we made plans for day two. We knew we would need many tanks of air, additional equipment, food and numerous other things as the time went on. Divers from everywhere began arriving to help, but only a few were experienced enough to dive in these conditions.

Look for part three of the story in the Wednesday, May 26, 2010, edition of L’Observateur.

Wayne Norwood is a lieutenant with the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Department and owner and operator of the Louisiana Trreasures Museum located at 10290 Highway 22, West Pontchatoula.