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DIVERS FIND NO BODIES BUT IMPROVE SEARCH TECHNIQUES

The darkness of the deep continues to cloak a mystery or two, despite the best efforts of science and some Buffalo-based divers.

Local hard-hat divers walked the bottom of one of the Finger Lakes last weekend, in a deep-water search that met only one of its twin goals -- trying to solve mysteries of both science and violence.

The bodies they expected to find -- possible drowning or violence victims preserved by the cold more than 160 feet below the surface of glacier-gouged Owasco Lake -- remained elusive. But the experience will help improve deep-water search-and-recovery techniques.

A team from Buffalo Industrial Diving Co. returned to the lake near Auburn to check out "targets" turned up this summer in a earlier successful search for a drowning victim.

The idea was mostly to develop a better understanding of the imagery provided by side-scan sonar, an evolving technology that is turning even murky lakes increasingly transparent, said project coordinator Walt "Butch" Hendrick of Lifeguard Systems of Hurley.

But a sonar-painted target that looked a lot to police like a body turned out to be a cardboard box. And another "hit," showing what looked like arms and legs, turned up only lake bottom.

Additional passes with the sonar were so precise they showed the footprints of the divers, said Dave Gorbett, Buffalo Industrial Diving Co. operations manager. If bodies were there during the original summer search, local lake experts say, they may have shifted with lake currents.

"The whole concept of side-scan sonar being used in our industry is just so new," Hendrick said. "We're working on developing a model for deep-water recovery."

Gorbett said crews were successful this August in using side-scan images to pinpoint the location of college student Nathan Swmyer, 19, of Pennsylvania.

The images led the divers directly to the body in 160 feet of water, ending a search that had been called off a few weeks after Swmyer's canoe apparently capsized Feb. 22 in rough weather. The student's family, with the aid of a Pennsylvania legislator, had persuaded authorities to reopen the search, using advanced technology as an experiment.

The Buffalo-based divers descended on the most likely target turned up by the sonar. Reaching the lake bottom took four minutes, and finding the body took just two more.

But the sonar also pinpointed other sites, Hendrick said. Divers needed to check them out to help define how the sonar images bottom elements, he added.

State police and the Oswego County Sheriff's Department also monitored the search.

During the earlier search, Hendrick's firm, which does the sonar searching, developed a good working relationship with Mark Judd, president of the Buffalo company.

State police with scuba gear could search only about 110 to 120 feet deep, but divers using surface-supplied air could go deeper, Hendrick said.

"They're good at it, they've got the gear, so we go with the professionals who can handle it," Hendrick said.

The team also used more advanced satellite-linked positioning gear than usually available to navigators, he added.

"We're using a unit called a Trimble NT-GPS," he said. "It's a DGPS, a differential global positioning system, better than a GPS that would put you within 100 meters of a (previously recorded) target."

"It puts us within 10 feet of what we're looking for, in 160 feet of water," he added. "It's very efficient, it's very cost-effective. When we put a diver down, he can go right to the body."

The Buffalo firm has tackled a number of more commercial projects, including removal of sediment from sewer lines and the dangerous eight-week reconnection of a century-old storm water drain near the Marine Midland Arena construction site in 1995.

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