Search for drowning victims gets boost with technology

Before divers get wet, they can pinpoint a body in the water.

CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio (AP) — When John Sanders began diving for bodies in 1965, it was a touch-and-go operation.

Up to two dozen divers would line up and grope along the bottom of a murky lake or river, hoping to bump into the corpse.

Now, the hunt for drowning victims is high-tech.

From a pontoon boat with three side-scan sonar machines, an underwater robot camera and other gear, Sanders and his team can pinpoint a body before getting wet.

It’s not a task the 70-year-old relishes, but one in which he takes satisfaction.

“I like to do it to help the families and give them some closure,” Sanders said.

As director of the nonprofit National Underwater Rescue & Recovery Institute, the master diving instructor is frequently there after tragedy and water mix.

Sanders and his volunteers have recovered 617 bodies as of last week while working with public-safety divers, more than 1,000 of whom he has helped train in quarries near Circleville.

Recent events

Sanders’ experience attracted calls from reporters seeking expert comments as divers in Minneapolis searched the debris of the collapsed I-35W bridge in the Mississippi River.

The retired 30-year Columbus Public Schools auto-mechanics instructor is familiar with the sight of twisted metal and submerged cars.

Shortly after the Silver Bridge collapsed Dec. 15, 1967, killing 46 people, Sanders arrived on the banks of the Ohio River near Gallipolis with his diving gear.

“Seeing those people in there and you couldn’t get to them, all that bridge iron just moving around in the water. It was awful,” he said.

A recent dive took Sanders back to Gallipolis, where he and his crew recovered the body of a probation officer who drowned in the Ohio River while swimming after a suspect.

Sanders also searched three lakes recently in hopes of finding the car of two elderly women who have been missing since they left a Lebanon retirement community April 19.

He was called Sunday to help search for a Lockbourne teen who drowned at Deer Creek State Park, authorities said.

The body of Derek Thomas Kirk, 17, was found Sunday night near the public beach, said Sandra Chiaramonte, a spokeswoman with the Parks Division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

He’s a deputy

Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight Radcliff values Sanders as both a friend and a deputized diver.

“He’s worth his weight in gold,” Radcliff said. “He’s there whenever you call him. He’s a super guy and very dedicated to the job he does.”

With 50 years of diving under his weight belt, Sanders still revels in donning his wet suit and air tank and taking the plunge.

Not even a knee replacement and a pair of hip replacements have slowed him as he moves gracefully under the water at Circleville Twin Quarries.

“I’m going to dive as long as my health is good,” he vowed.

And, when the day comes that he can no longer dive, Sanders figures he can continue to operate the sonar.

More like this from

Subscribe Today

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive daily news.

Want more? Click here to subscribe to either the Print or Digital Editions.