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Divers break the ice at training session

February 01, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Saturday's low temperature was a balmy 8 degrees, with the wind chill making it seem colder. Out at Greenbrier State Park east of Hagerstown, there were 8 to 10 inches of ice atop the lake.

Obviously, it was a perfect day for a swim.

That was the theory, at least, for three local men aiming for ice diving certification who went with their instructor for a bracing dip in the lake.

"I was looking forward to it until I got up this morning and turned on the weather and saw that it was 9 degrees. Then I thought, 'Why?'" said Dave Stealey, a certified diver and owner of Blue Marble Divers on Oak Ridge Drive in Hagerstown.

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Stealey and Gary Smith, who live in the Hagerstown area, and Duane Waite of McConnellsburg, Pa., each had different reasons for venturing into the depths on Saturday.

Stealey hopes to join the Washington County Dive Rescue Team. All diving instructors or diving masters are required to get continuing education credits, he added, and the ice diving course "allows me to get a certification I haven't had before."

Smith is considering a rescue role as well, but he also wanted to keep his diving hobby going. "This time of year we're pretty much landlocked," he said. So the only way to dive is to go through the ice.

"There should be good visibility," Smith said. Greenbrier Lake "is usually stained," he said, "and there's a lot of floating matter."

For Waite, ice diving was just "something different."

Stealey said he was hoping for 100 feet of visibility Saturday in a lake where visibility is usually limited to 15 or 20 feet.

The first order of business was to prepare the site - by cutting a triangular hole in the ice. Snow then was cleared from "spokes" on the ice leading from the hole. Those spokes, Stealey said, would serve as arrows for the divers while they were under water, leading back to the hole.

They then suited up in "dry suits," fitted with special seals at the wrists and neck to keep them dry, as instructor Dennis Fortney gave them some last-minute instructions.

"There's about 8 to 10 inches of ice, snow and slush out there. That's probably the worst scenario we could come up with," he said.

The divers went into the water in pairs, tethered to each other with plastic ropes. About half a dozen support people were on the ice to monitor them and help with equipment.

Fortney carefully explained a signal system: One tug on the rope meant the diver was OK. Two tugs meant he needed more line. Three was a signal to come in from the water. Four, from the "tender" on the ice, meant he was bringing the diver in.

Four from the diver, however, meant the diver had an emergency.

While the divers finished suiting up, Fortney and Park Ranger Dave Weesner practiced ice rescue, with Weesner pulling Fortney out of the frigid water.

None of the emergency signals or rescue procedures were needed. The divers donned tanks and masks and did two 10-minute dives each, in spite of water temperatures hovering between 33 and 37 degrees. Other than getting cold, the divers emerged little worse for the wear.

Water visibility wasn't quite as good as they hoped, however, and was limited to about 20 feet. They didn't find anything especially interesting under the water's surface, though Stealey said there was more underwater grass than he expected.

By the end of the dives, everyone was wet, cold and certified.

"Or certifiable," Stealey quipped.

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