Old Mystic dive team always ready to respond

The Mystic Fire Department boat took divers to the sinking of a power boat in Fishers Island Sound last month.
The Mystic Fire Department boat took divers to the sinking of a power boat in Fishers Island Sound last month. Theresa Hersh Special to The Day Buy Photo

The assembled rescuers could only hope the missing boater had either escaped the vessel or found an air pocket in the cabin.

If either were the case, she would have three, maybe four, hours to be found alive. Beyond that, the rescue mission would turn to recovering a body.

Such were the calculations made when police, fire departments and the Coast Guard assembled Aug. 19 at Noank Shipyard after the 50-foot yacht Priceless hit a cluster of rocks off Fishers Island and sank, by some estimations in mere minutes. Nine of the occupants were rescued. One was found the next day in the cabin of the yacht, her death ruled an accidental drowning.

Commander of the operation those two days was Old Mystic Fire Department Chief Ken Richards Jr., who brought along a large contingent of his department's dive team.

While his fire department is called out many times a year - an average of 1,400 times annually, according to Chief Richards - often overlooked, but never underestimated service it provides in this shoreline community is the role of the department's dive team. The specialized unit averages only about four calls per year but stands willing and ready to risk themselves in a moment's notice in any conditions, from 34- to 75-degree water, year-round.

"A standard house fire, you've got six ways to get out," said Anthony Mancini, an Old Mystic Fire Department dive team member. "Under water, you only have one way - up."

"When we get there, it's not everybody rush in and get in there," Old Mystic Capt. Keith Richards said of dive operations. "It has to be set up very specifically because it is a very high-risk, low frequency situation."

The nearly 20-person Old Mystic Fire Department dive team, said Keith Richards, the son of Chief Richards and a 12-year veteran, is one of only a few shoreline teams from the Thames River to the Rhode Island border and west to Guilford. About 10 of those are tenders, or the ones who act as the eyes and ears above the water, usually in a boat. The other nine are the divers - "dopes on a rope," joked dive team director Chris Stearns - who have the training for underwater operations.

The entire fire department is made up of about 35 members. Most are volunteers, with only five full-time employees.

When the call came in Aug. 19 around 2:50 p.m., everyone was off doing their own thing.

Fahad Hussain was packing for a vacation. Anthony Mancini was at home in Groton. So, too, was Ken Ryall. Ken's daughter, Carrie Ryall, was at work. Keith Richards was at the beach.

But within minutes on that sunny Sunday, all had responded to either the Old Mystic Fire Department headquarters on Cow Hill Road or directly to the Noank Shipyard to help in a rescue operation after a distressed boater called 911 to report the 50-foot Priceless had hit some rocks and was taking on water fast.

Five Old Mystic divers responded, as did some from the Groton Town Police Department and Westerly Rescue. Using the Mystic Fire Department's brand-new boat, the group headed out to the site of the sinking, about 300 yards north of Fishers Island near the Flat Hammock sand bar.

"Mystic's new fire boat was a huge, huge, huge part of this operation," Chief Richards said. "I can't overemphasize how much that boat was part of that operation. For only having that boat for two or three weeks, the operators did an excellent job."

Once at the wreckage site, Mancini dove down, looking for the boat. Mancini could see only 4 to 6 feet underwater, so finding the boat, which was submerged at about 40 feet, was a difficult task. The conditions, which were "approaching and surpassing the levels of training for all divers on scene," Richards said, did not help. And correctly positioning a diver is an intricate ballet for the boat operator, the tender and the diver. Once submerged, the diver won't swim much, so the operator must leave just the right amount of distance - like a well-timed throw from a quarterback to an in-stride wide receiver - to account for the current and other water conditions.

"It took us a little while because the currents were strong at that time," Keith Richards said. "Before he physically touched and marked it with a buoy was an hour and a half."

Mancini surfaced and the boat was located, but Richards said it had begun to get dark and the tide had changed, increasing the current and leaving the divers with only 2 feet of visibility. Four hours had passed, meaning the chances of finding the woman alive were now slim to none. The rescue operation was over.

"Basically at that point we had to look at the tide table," Richards said, "and the next slack tide was 6 a.m. the next morning."

After some rest, the group returned at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for the operation. Five divers went out, including Mancini, who attached a hard line to the boat that four other divers could follow down for the recovery process. Then Carrie Ryall, serving as a safety, and three Groton Town police divers, two of whom are trained in entering submerged wreckage, went down. They surfaced around 7:30 a.m. with the body of Mary Patenaude, 66. The Pomfret woman's death was ruled an accidental drowning. Her husband, David I. Patenaude, owned the Priceless.

"I blocked out the emotions," Mancini said of that several hour span. "There was a job and I wanted to get it done. The emotions will come later."

Chief Richards said the operation was "the most extensive and challenging situation we've been put into" since the dive team was created in the late 1990s.

The inside of the dive team's large truck is speckled with neons: red and orange flotation devices, yellow and green air canisters and wet suits. Stearns, the team director, said the divers bought the shell of a truck - an old utility or bread truck - in 2005 and went to work on the inside, installing lockers, clothes hangers, benches. They lined it with the spray-on, waterproof material used inside truck beds and customized the truck's wiring, lights and radio system.

Stearns said dive team members are dedicated, and the work done on the truck is proof of that. So, too, are the twice monthly meetings - in addition to any fire department-related events - and the frequent trainings at the UConn-Avery Point swimming pool or in nearby rivers, lakes and Long Island Sound. All the members took a 36-hour class this summer to become certified for rapid deployment blackwater diving. It prepared them for the low visibility the divers encountered Aug. 19. During the training, Ryall said, the instructors fixed duct tape over their masks to mimic the darkness of deep sea.

Ryall, like the others, joined the fire department because it provided an outlet for her passion for diving.

"It's another way to help the people and there's a great need in the area," she said. "There's not a lot of divers, there's not a lot of dive teams that are trained the way we are, and you could see that by how many we got at the dive site (last month). Yes, we got a lot of divers, but had that been a car accident and you had called the same amount of towns for fire trucks to come in and help with the rollover or something like that, it would have been far more people. So it definitely is a great need and it's another way we can help the community because there are so many boaters around here."

Stearns said he joined the fire department 13 years ago because of the dive team. At the time, it had just been created.

"But then I went to my first car fire and I was hooked," said Stearns, who now is also a firefighter.

After last month's incident, the team decided to sign up for a class that will teach them how to enter planes, boats and automobiles under water. Many of the incidents the team is dispatched to include submerged vehicles.

One example, Chief Richards said, happened several years ago at the Ledyard Reservoir. The dive team responded there in the dead of winter - "there had been a blizzard that day," he said - and dove into 34-degree water to look for any occupants of a car that went into the reservoir. No one was in the car so divers did not have to enter it, he recalled. The new certification and skills they learn in the upcoming training will enhance the quality of service the department provides, Richards said, especially with a nearby airport.

Ken Ryall, Carrie's father, agreed, saying it's another tool the department can have at its disposal.

"There's a different environment," he said. "I don't necessarily think that the diving is anything special, there are just different techniques for a different environment. But it doesn't take away from the rest of what the department does as a whole on a day-to-day basis."

s.goldstein@theday.com

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