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Md. state troopers plunge into rescue efforts

May 10, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

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MD diversMd. state troopers plunge into rescue efforts

On occasion, eight Maryland State Police troopers will go to great depths to solve a crime, but they often find themselves in over their heads.

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The troopers are members of the Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Team who work the roads and highways full time throughout the state. But when they're called, the team members are prepared to strip off their official black and brown uniforms in exchange for wet suits and flippers.

Most recently, four team members dove into the cold waters of Antietam Creek to try to recover the body of a Frederick, Md., man who jumped off a dam beneath Mount Aetna Road on April 30 to rescue his dog.

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The mission was suspended after the experienced divers spent nearly eight hours at the scene in water made turbulent by recent heavy rains and the design of the dam.

"Within a matter of one minute, I was thrashed against the wall (of the dam)," said U.S. Navy-trained diver and Trooper 1st Class David Matthews, of Hagerstown.

The dam is constructed of two cement walls which form a 'V,' causing a churning effect which, as in the case of the Frederick man, can be deadly if caught in it, Matthews said.

"That one at Antietam I'll remember for a long time," said Sgt. Tom Woodward, of Hagerstown, a six-year member of the team.

The body of Justin Michael Fortenberry, 23, turned up a week later on Thursday morning about 60 yards downstream from the dam.

Searching for bodies isn't one of the more pleasant aspects of the job and it's often thankless since they aren't expected to find anyone alive.

"We're recovery, not rescue," said Sgt. Rick Narron, of Hagerstown, a seven-year member of the recovery team.

Incidents the Maryland team responded to that made national news included the underwater search for William Colby, the former CIA director who accidentally died in 1996 during a solo canoeing excursion near his home.

Last summer, the eight-member team responded to the site of an airplane crash in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Ocean City, Md.

But most of the team's jobs go unnoticed by the public. There's not much glamour in recovering guns, ammunition, knives, safes, stolen automobiles and various other items members have searched for in all kinds of bodies of water and conditions over the years.

Yet their recovery can mean solving a crime, proving a story or adding to a case, Matthews said.

Like their job on dry land, going underwater isn't without its risks.

Stories of searching for items by feel in water made black by mud and sediment, getting tangled in tree roots and debris, swimming against strong currents and undertows, and diving through ice-topped waters all come to the minds of the team members.

But it's a love of swimming and scuba diving combined with their police work that made them want to join the team, they said. They also passed rigorous tests before joining.

Founded in 1959, the team is made up of volunteers. They aren't paid extra for their underwater work.

"It's all voluntarily done. Nobody told us to do this. We want to do this," Matthews said.

Matthews, Woodward, Narron, and Sgt. Otto Artfitch, of Cumberland, the team's Navy-trained commander and 29-year member, would be the first to cover calls in Western Maryland.

Trooper 1st Class Mark Judge, who lives in Carroll County, takes care of assessing calls in central Maryland.

Sgt. Mitch Parke, a former Navy SEAL, Trooper 1st Class Kevin Rhodes and Trooper 1st Class Krah Plunkert cover the east.

No less than four members of the team dive at a site, and all eight members respond together on big assignments.

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