Mark Sternbach is sitting on the bank of a pond just off N.C. Highway 24, looking into the dark, murky water.
Sternbach begins speaking into the microphone attached to his headphones as he jots down information on a yellow note pad. He has been doing this for the past half hour. Suddenly, he gets a response from one of the divers submerged some 13 feet under the water and picks his head up and motions to those on shore.
“They found the body,” he said breathing a sigh of relief.
Minutes later, the divers in the water — Lewis Matthis, Kenneth Canndady and Hank Baringer — come up with a gurney, a mannequin strapped on it; they are exhausted.
“This is really involved, what we are doing here today,” Sternbach explains. “It is a lot to learn, and the water is murky. They were telling me the visibility was zero, so there was a lot of feeling around, but they were able to find the body and that is what this is all about. It gives people comfort knowing that if a scenario like this ever happened, God forbid, that there are people in place who are qualified to handle it.”
Every month, the Sampson County Dive Team, a special division of Roseboro Rescue and EMS, are in the water or meeting, all on their own time, honing their skills in case they are needed.
Formed in 2006 by Cannady, Ronald Ellis, Kevin Ellis, Carmine Colantuono and Brad Sullivan, the group initially came together to help families bring some closure after the loss of a loved one.
“We had several different calls in the county, explains Cannady, who is the team’s captain. “The Buddy Myers call had dive teams coming in from several different places, and a lot of local ponds were searched. We had a drowning on Long Lake Road years ago and teams from all over the state were called in with sonar crews to help out. The most recent one was about six or seven years ago on Five Bridge Road when a truck went into the water and a father, his wife and son were trapped underwater. The son kicked out the back window and crawled out, but the parents both drowned.”
The feeling was a helpless one, Cannady remembers.
“There were several of us (divers) there at that Five Bridge Road wreck, but we just couldn’t do anything. So many times we have needed a team and we had to call outside the counties, and to be honest, it was just more of a benefit to the county if we had a team here. So we formed the team and we can serve the county and help out anywhere in the state we are needed.”
The Sampson County Dive Team was officially recognized by the county during the 2006-07 fiscal year. They work out of the Roseboro EMS building, but are a separate entity. Although they turn in a budget to the county, they also get funding from grants from the USDA Rural Development grant and the N.C. Rescue Relief Fund, which comes in handy with the pricey equipment. For instance, one dive suit could run anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000.
“We take a little bit of money and turn it into a lot,” notes Cannady.
To get their own trailer to haul the equipment, the team sought help from local businesses for donations (which are all listed on the doors) and put their own money and effort into getting it.
“It is funny because people see us in parades or when we are parked somewhere in town and they always say, ‘we didn’t know Sampson County has a dive team’,” laughs Cannady. “But we do and we are here to help, and if other counties need us to pitch in, we do that, too.”
Back at the pond, trainer Mike Ange throws out another scenario to the team and explains that they will go back into the water to try and find a murder weapon that was reportedly thrown into the pond as the made-up bandits were getting away.
Ange makes sure that everything is on point and accurate.
“This is a training program that gives specific details on how to manage crime scenes and body recovery scenes,” said Ange, who came from Florida on his own dime to train the team. “Most of it is safety for them, because if they get injured, they can’t do the job.”
Scenarios are one thing, but the real thing is another, he says.
“You have to be prepared for anything. It is very difficult. So what we are doing today is having a scenario with the most arduous circumstances.”
Ange says he is proud to be working with the dedicated dive team.
“Any time that you are working with these type of teams, they are all volunteers. They are not getting paid anything to be here, so they are really putting their heart and souls back into this community, trying to meet what they perceive is a need in this community and trying to fill that void. To me, it is always a pleasure to work with guys like this because they come in motivated and want to help others.”
Currently, there are approximately 20 members in the group and each one said that is exactly why they got involved.
“I have been involved with this team for about two years now,” said Sternbach, who has been a certified diver for 35 years. “I take diving very seriously, and I am just very honored and proud to be part of it and proud to be able to give something back to this community.”
“Just to help out the community,” said Matthis. “Anything that I could do to help,and that makes a big difference to me.”
“I am also on the fire department and I love helping out this community,” said Chris Hoskins. “Doing this and giving back, means a lot to me.”
“Sometimes you need to bring closure to the family,” adds Cannady. “If there is a drowning victim, it means a lot to that family if we are able to recover that body for them. Good or bad, it does give that family closure. They won’t be satisfied and won’t be able to live with it, until that body is recovered and they can give their family member a proper burial. That is the most important thing.”
For more information on the team or for sponsorship call Roseboro Rescue and EMS (Joel Faircloth) at (910) 525-4817.
To reach Doug Clark call 910-592-8137 ext. 123 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.