Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Hand over hand, inch by inch, Navy divers searched through the wrecked bridge

Gaithersburg native, 2001 Wootton graduate, helped Minneapolis recovery

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U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass CommunicationSpecialist AndrewMcKaskle
Navy Diver 2nd Class Noah Gottesman, 24, of Gaithersburg surveys the wreckage of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.
Three days after Minneapolis’ Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, Gaithersburg native Noah Gottesman received a midnight phone call.

By morning, the warfare diving specialist and 22 others from the U.S. Navy’s elite Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two were packing: hard hats, wet suits, ‘‘umbilical cords,” two 3,000-pound surface-supply systems, a decompression chamber and more.

By 4 a.m., they had loaded 30 tons of gear. By noon Aug. 5, they were headed to the Twin Cities.

‘‘The mission was to find all eight missing people — we found every last one,” said Gottesman, 24, a 2001 graduate of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville.

Thirteen people died in the Aug. 1 bridge collapse. The cause of the collapse has not been determined.

Gottesman’s team is a special-operations diving unit based at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, off Norfolk, Va.

Following initial response and rescue, Minnesota’s Hennepin County called the unit to help local search crews and FBI divers navigate tons of wreckage to find submerged vehicles.

‘‘You have to imagine what the conditions were like: Take a bathtub, put a toy car in there, take cinderblocks, smash them up, put wire ropes through it, put huge metal beams all twisted up, and say ‘Find eight cars.’ It’s a needle in a haystack,” Gottesman said from Minneapolis. ‘‘You also have to add a couple knots current that’s blowing you everywhere like a hurricane.”

‘‘It’s a very somber and sobering scene,” unit spokesman Senior Chief Dave Nagle said from the bridge Aug. 16.

‘‘I think I can speak for all the divers when I say that we’re here to help in any way that we can to complete the recovery operations and to help bring closure to the families of the victims.”

Hand over hand, inch by inch

The unit worked alongside local, county, federal and military units in bridge rescue and recovery, said Randy Mitchell, lead spokesman on military operations at the scene.

From Aug. 6 to Aug. 21, 16 divers in protective gear worked 12-hour shifts that turned into 18-hour days, said Gottesman, a Navy Diver 2nd Class.

Hand over hand, inch by inch, one foot at a time, the divers worked in teams of two to feel their way through the rubble. They breathed highly compressed air and talked to rescue crews through cords that connected their hard-hats — 35-pound helmets that fully encased their heads — to surface-supply equipment on a barge at the surface.

‘‘The visibility is extremely poor,” Nagle said. ‘‘Maybe at best you can only see a foot in front of you.”

Divers guided cranes, excavators and heavy saws to possible locations of vehicles and wove heavy cables with giant hooks that can hold up to 44,000 pounds around debris.

As tons of broken concrete, twisted steel columns and other wreckage were removed, the divers returned again and again ‘‘to make sure nothing had shifted, and everything was structurally sound, then look again,” Mitchell said.

Hydraulic tools helped the divers cut through rebar and car doors.

Called to service

Only 50 percent who try become Navy mobile and salvage divers; Gottesman has been one of approximately 400 since 2004, according to Nagle.

Gottesman played lacrosse and football at Wootton; he graduated in 2001, then played Division 1 lacrosse for the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., for one year before joining the Navy in 2003, hoping to join a special unit. He chose the Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit, which has cleared waterways in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and recovered victims of TWA Flight 800 near Long Island, N.Y.

‘‘There’s more emphasis on being athletic than in any other part of the Navy,” Gottesman said. ‘‘And there’s a huge emphasis on academics in diving — physics, medicine, and ... 50-some-odd manuals that we have to be familiar with to do our job well.”

The divers do all master diving, from combat diving and the close-circuit scuba seen in action movies to chamber diving that requires living in ‘‘a little moon room” underwater for days at a time.

Gottesman helped clear 1,500 miles of federal waterways after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2006, he served two back-to-back deployments to the Middle East, clearing Naval ships of explosive devices and helping Marine reconnaissance in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and ‘‘one you’re not supposed to talk about yet,” he said.

The Minneapolis work was ‘‘probably some of the hairiest diving I’ve done in the Navy,” Gottesman said.