Mission complete for Navy divers

Navy divers
In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Navy divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 from Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia, prepare to enter the water at the site of the I-35 bridge collapse.
Photo by Joshua Adam Nuzzo/U.S. Navy

(AP) - The divers moved tentatively, in lead-weighted boots, lugging an umbilical cord that constantly threatened to snag on the steel reinforcing bars poking from the concrete rubble. On good days they could see an arm's length in front of their helmets. More like inches on the bad days.

On Wednesday, some of the 24 U.S. Navy divers spoke for the first time about the two weeks they spent gingerly searching the dark, debris-laden waters of the Mississippi River, where the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, killing 13 people.

The divers recovered eight of those bodies from the wreckage. The last body of those known to be missing was found Monday.

Wearing leather gloves, thick rubber boots, and a protective layer over their wet suits, the divers worked in teams of two.

"Sharp metal, twisted steel. Anybody could be sliced open by anything down there."

The Red diver did the work, moving debris, working hydraulic tools to open up a crushed car to check for bodies. The Green diver handed over tools and stood watch in case anything went wrong.

"Sharp metal, twisted steel. Anybody could be sliced open by anything down there," said Diver 1st Class Brian Bennett, describing the conditions in the water.

"The concrete covers up everything, and (it's) very heavy. You don't know what's stable and what's not."

They had to fight the current, working with the lock and dam operator upstream to control the river's flow.

None of the divers were seriously hurt, although four got chemical burns from gasoline that leaked from submerged vehicles, Bennett said.

The darkness meant divers were very close to the victims before they saw them.

"You don't get a warning when you're coming up on a victim with that kind of visibility," Bennett said. "It shocks you. You've got to step back, take a few deep breaths and get back to work."

The divers most often are assigned to repair ships or submarines or recover crashed aircraft. But Navy divers also worked in the New Orleans area after Katrina, and at the site of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, N.Y.

Diver Clarence Allen called working at the collapse site a privilege.

"This is our job, this is what we do, and we're good at it. So it was like, OK, let's go to work," he said. "To bring some closure to the families meant a lot to all of us."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)